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Stimulants: the drugs of modernity

By Docta, Nov 14, 2015 | | |
  1. Docta
    altine.jpg The use of the drug ice in Australia is said to be at “epidemic'' levels. There is nothing new in this claim for both Australia and much of the rest of the world. Epidemics have accompanied the use and misuse of stimulants from the late-19th century. John Rainford traces that history in this three-part series.

    By the latter decades of the 19th century, mass production and an emphasis on speed had signalled the start of modernity. The steam engine had given rise to railway systems that compressed time and distance; marine engines were replacing sail, bringing continents closer together; the telegraph and submarine cables meant communication at hitherto unknown speeds and reach; canned food could conveniently replace the fresh variety; electric lighting had already seen day conquer night; and horses would soon make way for motor vehicles.

    What came with it was an appetite for chemical substances that made it easier to work long hours in physically demanding jobs. The first of these was cocaine. It was not until Albert Niemann, a chemist at Gottingen University in Germany, isolated the alkaloid cocaine from coca leaves in 1860 that the drug came into popular use, with early demand focusing on alcoholic drinks.

    Cocaine and alcohol

    The combination of cocaine and alcohol produces a particularly intoxicating metabolite called cocaethlyene, which has an elimination half-life three to five times longer than that of cocaine. This helps explain why Vin Mariani, a mixture of Bordeaux wine and extracts of coca leaves developed by the Corsican pharmacist Angelo Mariani, became such a successful product in 1863.

    Vin Mariani was promoted as a tonic-stimulant for the fatigued and overworked body and brain. Early tipplers included the writers Alexandre Dumas, Henrik Ibsen, Jules Verne, H G Wells and Emile Zola.
    The royalty of Europe who enjoyed a drop included Queen Victoria, the kings of Greece, Serbia, Norway, Spain and Sweden, the Prince of Monaco, the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Tsar of Russia. The Shah of Persia and US presidents Ulysses S Grant and William McKinley also imbibed, as did the sculptor Rodin, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who gave us the gramophone and the incandescent light bulb among a thousand other inventions.

    Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, claimed he would have designed the statue three times larger if he had been drinking Vin Mariani at the time. Pope Pius X indulged, as did Pope Leo XIII, who was so impressed by the drink that he awarded Mariani a special gold medal. The coca drink invented by the bankrupt morphine addict, John Pemberton, was even more successful than Vin Mariani. His French Wine Coca (made from wine, kola nuts and coca leaves) was promoted as a general cure-all and as a specific cure for morphine and opium addiction. In 1886 Pemberton pre-empted the prohibition of alcohol in Atlanta by removing the wine and renaming the product Coca-Cola.

    By the mid 1880s cocaine consumption had increased rapidly with British, German and US pharmaceutical companies setting up facilities in Peru and Bolivia which ramped up production. Frederic Engels was known to have indulged and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine binge.

    The US pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis marketed cocaine in a way that created demand instead of being subject to it. By 1885 the company had developed coca leaf cigars and cigarettes. Its sales pitch boasted that cocaine would “make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, free the victims of the alcohol and opium habit from their bondage, and, as an anaesthetic, render the sufferer insensitive to pain”.
    Cocaine was marketed in the form of lozenges for the relief of sore throats, as toothache drops and, most notably, from the mid-1890s in sprays and snuffs as a cure for asthma, hay fever, colds and catarrh. It was the cheaper and more easily administered snuff that led to sniffing becoming the most common way of taking cocaine.

    In most of the catarrh preparations the cocaine content rarely exceeded 5%. But Ryno's Hay Fever and Catarrh Remedy weighed in at a hefty 99.95%. It came with a recommendation that it should be used “two to ten times a day, or oftener if really necessary”. Prolonged use at this dose would have quite likely relieved users of their nasal septum, if nothing else.

    Cocaine in the workplace

    At the workplace in the US, wherever there was hard work to be done, the workers doing it were likely to be using cocaine, which they either bought themselves or were supplied by the workplace. Cocaine became part of the wage bargain: employers provided it to their workers up and down the country, from the cotton plantations and road and levee construction sites in the south to the textile and silk mills in the north. In the hard-rock mines of the west, miners worked a minimum 84-hour week — at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Those who worked at smelting the ore had a similarly punishing schedule, except they also worked 24 hours every second Sunday.

    “Big Bill” Haywood, secretary of the Western Federation of Miners from 1900 and a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, has recorded that cocaine was sold at every company store in his work environment. Haywood had worked in the mining industry since he started as a 15-year-old in 1884.
    According to an article in the British Medical Journal in 1902, cocaine enabled workers on the New Orleans waterfront “to perform more easily the extraordinary severe work of loading and unloading steamboats, at which, perhaps for 70 hours at a stretch, they have to work without sleep or rest, in rain, in cold, in heat”.

    Doctors prescribed cocaine by injection and the Parke-Davis company marketed a cocaine kit that came complete with a hypodermic syringe. Addiction began to surface as a problem among professional middle-class males, with doctors prominent among them. But by 1899 the use of cocaine in medical practice was phased out when the less hazardous synthetic compound, Novocaine, was developed. Its use in other areas continued: cocaine was administered to combatants in France during World War I, including to Australian troops, who were also given cocaine at Gallipoli.

    Recreational use

    As the medical use of cocaine began to decline, recreational use increased. In the US in the 13 year period from 1890, cocaine consumption increased fivefold. The sympathy that had previously existed for middle-class addicts was now replaced by fear of “crazed cocaine fiends” as cocaine became a working class drug in the US. This fear was exacerbated by the fact that cocaine was now associated with a particularly sordid type of user — the petty criminal class. Cocaine became the drug of choice not just for the proletariat but for the lumpen proletariat. Prostitutes started to become significant cocaine users in the early 20th century, and with them came pimps, petty thieves, gamblers and other assorted “undesirables”.

    It also came to be associated with African Americans. In the south, “cocaine-crazed negroes” with their “increased and perverted sexual desires and near superhuman strength” were held to represent an urgent and growing danger to the white community. The police chief of Asheville, North Carolina, is said to have exchanged the firearm he was issued for one of higher calibre after shooting a “cocainised nigger” twice with so little effect that he had to finish him off with a club. The fact that this “danger” went hand in hand with an epidemic of lynchings, legalised segregation and the introduction of discriminatory voting laws was, it seems, entirely coincidental. By the end of World War I, cocaine was well on the way to becoming a prohibited drug in those countries where it had not already been banned. The pharmaceutical companies had seen the writing on the wall and were content to realise their profits from other synthetic drugs.

    Cocaine illegal

    But making the use and possession of cocaine a criminal activity when a large group of users were already criminally inclined was hardly the epitome of deterrence. Those who continued to use the drug simply turned to illicit suppliers as the dynamics of the market changed. Cocaine leaked out of the manufacturing plants of Amsterdam and Hamburg, and was smuggled by seafarers and supplied illicitly by dentists and pharmacists. Although the market for illicit cocaine was not particularly large in Australia, much of the supply came from Chinese seafarers who bought cocaine in those Asian ports where it was not yet prohibited and smuggled it into Sydney's Chinatown. From there it found its way to east Sydney prostitutes via the infamous Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.

    By the late 1920s, with cocaine eliminated from proprietary medicines, superseded as a local anaesthetic and strictly controlled in its now limited application in medical practice, its continued consumption was dependent on its popularity as a recreational drug and as a stimulant that aided productivity in the workplace. The worldwide depression that began when the Stock Exchange on Wall Street crashed on October 29, 1929, had the obvious effect of dampening demand in the workplace as industrial production fell by about a third, with employment levels not far behind, in its immediate aftermath. By the early 1930s, the pharmaceutical industry had provided a substitute for cocaine. Amphetamines would be as readily available in the coming decades as cocaine had been in the previous ones.

    Friday, November 13, 2015
    By John Rainford
    Image credit drugs-forum.com


  1. rawbeer
    The fact that this “danger” went hand in hand with an epidemic of lynchings, legalised segregation and the introduction of discriminatory voting laws was, it seems, entirely coincidental.

    This was a great article, but this line struck me as a bit strange. I can only take it as a sarcastic statement coming as it does in such an informed article ( I cannot believe that it actually is "entirely coincidental"!) yet the article is entirely devoid of sarcasm elsewhere so it seems as if the statement is intended to be taken seriously.

    What astounds me about the history of cocaine is this: If cocaine were significantly cheaper now, I promise you a LOT more people would use a LOT more of it. And it was so cheap back in the late 19th to early 20th century that poor people could afford to be addicted to it. And yet from what I have read elsewhere it was unpopular with the upper classes, who looked down upon it as a "poor" drug (much like crack in modern times - recall Whitney Houston's angry response to Diane Sawyer saying she used crack, while happily admitting to powder cocaine use).

    Cocaine is perhaps the most pharmacologically alluring drug around, and yet as powerful as it is, the desire of the rich to distance themselves from the poor is stronger! And now one of cocaine's biggest draws is it's aristocratic status. It makes you realize how much the culture associated with a drug effects its allure - as another example cannabis became less popular among Dutch youth after legalization, probably because it was no longer seen as rebellious. And alcohol consumption actually rose during prohibition in the USA...people are indeed strange.
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