A Brief Introduction To “Erythroxylon Coca” (in) “A New Form Of Nervous Disease”
By W.S. Searle, M.D. (1881)
This essay by Dr. Searle, which I will post in sections, was written just as the centuries-long history of Coca Leaf use by physicians was about to be brought to an end by the “new and improved” synthesized alkaloid Cocaine, which was originally developed by German scientists and quickly and universally introduced into medical practice and by hundreds of patent medicine entrepreneurs worldwide.
The development of Cocaine was almost inevitable, given the reductionist thinking that prevailed – and still largely prevails – in the pharmaceutical industry. By that I mean that it was inevitable that early bio-scientists somewhere would say to themselves – “hmmmm, it’s clear that there is something in this Coca leaf that the savages of the Andes find very useful. It appears to give them the strength and stamina to work for days with little food, and to carry heavy burdens over high passes in the mountains without tiring. Since we obviously can’t corner the market and make any money by selling a simple leaf, we must isolate the active principle. If we can isolate the active principle we can patent it and protect our markets. Think how useful it would be if our laboring classes could be given a daily dose, and they could then work all day untiringly in our mines and factories without the need for food. Think of the market if we can turn European and American sick people and their doctors away from primitive teas and extracts and instead toward the use of a modern, clean scientific pharmaceutical powder.”
On the one hand these brilliant scientists and businessmen succeeded – they did develop Cocaine, and it was useful in certain medical applications, and they were able to patent it and variations of it and they did become very wealthy. However, Cocaine was never nearly as effective for the broad range of human conditions and diseases as the simple, pure Coca Leaf, and that must have driven these businessmen crazy. Furthermore, it soon became evident that, in spite of its usefulness as an anӕsthetic, first doctors and then the public discovered in Cocaine a very attractive way to get very, very high – a much better high than you could ever get with alcohol and apparently with fewer undesirable effects than the very popular drug Opium (or, of course, its reductionist derivative Morphine). Of course there was one small problem – Cocaine was highly addictive – and as the frenzy over that issue developed and spread everyone simply overlooked the fact that was not true of the natural leaf, since by that time the knowledge of the powers of natural Coca leaf had been neatly cleansed from the popular as well as the scientific and medical mind.
So while by the 1880s-1890s Cocaine was beginning to make headway into the medical professions and the streets of the Western world, there were definite problems associated with it, and very soon alarm bells began to ring in the halls of the morally correct, the politically astute, the media savvy, and the opportunistically greedy. As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, these forces had gathered strength and within a few years after the turn of the century Cocaine was not just illegal (except for the medical profession, of course) it was subject to the harshest forms of repression that could be devised.
The “Cocaine Fiend” phenomenon was soon born, and while mothers trembled for the safety of their babies, and pastors bellowed forth concerns for souls of their flock, and political hacks of every sort found ways to climb on board, and yellow journalists sold untold reams of screaming headlines, the hundreds of years of knowledge and empirical evidence of the healing powers of the pure, simple, natural Coca Leaf was lost as well. More than lost, I would venture to say. The record clearly shows that knowledge was first repressed and then methodically erased from public memory.
In our own time we can see more clearly the broad paths of wreckage that criminalization of drugs has created in our society, which is why the work of physicians and scientists like Dr. Searle is so important, writing as they did when it was still possible to investigate the important, even unique medical uses of Coca Leaf. This essay was written before any of the calamities of criminalization were perpetrated, and yet they were on the horizon and Dr. Searle evidently saw at least some of what was coming. In writing this essay he went on record with his medical experience that in Coca Leaf mankind has a sovereign remedy to many of its ills.
As you read the words of Dr. Searle you may, as I did, find yourself asking whether it is really possible that he wrote this in 1880, because his wisdom and experience regarding the causes of disease seem as true today as when they were written. His words also remind us that in the natural world there is still a simple plant-based medicine that is proven to heal a wide range of diseases and conditions – a true panacea. There is still research to be done with Coca Leaf and healing – the entire range of its beneficial effects has not been documented using modern technologies. But the evidence that remains for us to read and consider in the work of those like Dr. Searle shows that, clearly, many modern health problems might be resolved as easily as by self-administering several cups of fresh, organically grown Coca Leaf tea every day. Perhaps if we apply the same kinds of energy to Coca Leaf that we have applied to our right to use other natural medicines, we will find a way to insist that people have open, unfettered access to this divine plant.