I’ve been browsing through the 19th century medical & historical literature on Coca Leaf and medical Cocaine, and find myself wondering about what has changed between then and now? As you’ll see in the following excerpt from “The Safety & Efficacy Of Coca Leaf & The Dangers Of Cocaine” (in) “History of Coca” – Dr. W. G. Mortimer, 1901, in the late 1800s at least some doctors considered widespread Cocaine use by the working classes to be a non-issue.
As you read through Dr. Mortimer’s comments below, ask yourself – is the Cocaine that Dr. Mortimer is talking about the same Cocaine that is everywhere in the world today? If it is essentially the same Cocaine – then what has changed? If as you’ll see society tolerated millions of Cocaine users in the late 1800s, and experienced few severe medical consequences, What can this little set of anecdotes tell us about that world, and what does this knowledge suggest for today’s world?
The question does occur to me – have many of us been accepting the “War On Drugs” line on Cocaine and never asking exactly how many people die of Cocaine (not overdose – just “from Cocaine”) per year. I just looked it up and have to admit surprise that approximately 5000 people per year have died from Cocaine over the past decade, with 2006 at the peak year with nearly 7000 deaths.
On the one hand that is a lot of people – but on the other hand, do 5000 deaths a year out of 1.5 million regular US users justify the enormous police oppression of Cocaine, led worldwide by the US? 8000 people die every year in the US from diarrhea. When you consider that 400+ Tons of Cocaine arrives in the US every year, that means that proportional to what’s coming in not many people die from Cocaine use – not nearly enough to justify the brutal worldwide network of militarized police that “battles” the perhaps largely mythical Cocaine scourge.
So, given some doubt about how serious the Cocaine “threat” really is, I thought it might be useful to compare our 2015 experience with society-wide use of Cocaine to the experience of medical professionals in another time. Here’s a very small cross-section of what medical doctors were saying and publishing about widespread Coca Leaf and Cocaine use in the late 1800s.
Excerpt from “The Safety & Efficacy Of Coca Leaf & The Dangers Of Cocaine”:
“It is a noteworthy fact already referred to, that there has been no recorded case of poisoning from Coca Leaf, nor cases of Coca Leaf addiction commonly regarded as “Habit.” The cases of cocaine poisoning and addiction often sensationally reported are even open to grave doubt. The condition termed “cocaine habit” is not generally accepted by physicians. Certainly the very general use of cocaine as an anӕsthetic has not resulted relatively in anything like the number of rare accidents from the use of chloroform and ether, and this fact must appear the more remarkable when it is appreciated that chloroform and ether are administered under skilled observation, while cocaine is commonly employed by hundreds of thousands – even millions – of laymen, many of whom are absolutely ignorant of its properties.
“The use of any alkaloid should be with the appreciation that the factor of personal idiosyncrasy may exert an influence to occasion irregular action. A case of fatal poisoning has been recorded against cocaine from as small a dose as two-thirds of a grain of the hydrochlorate given hypodermically, and from twenty minims of a four percent solution (four-fifths of a grain) of the same salt injected into the urethra, and smaller doses it is asserted have produced alarming symptoms. On the other hand, numerous cases are recorded where excessive doses of the alkaloid have been continued for long periods without giving rise to serious trouble. A recovery is recorded after forty-six grains of cocaine had been taken into the stomach, and in one case twenty-three grains of cocaine was used hypodermically daily.
“ Dr. William A. Hammond experimented upon himself by injecting cocaine subcutaneously. Commencing with one grain the dose was gradually increased until eighteen grains were taken in four portions within five minutes of each other. His pulse increased to one hundred and forty and became irregular. Five minutes after the last injection he felt elated and utterly regardless of surroundings, consciousness being lost within half an hour. The next morning in going to his study where the experiment had been performed he found the floor strewn with books of reference and the chairs overturned, indicating there had been an active mental and physical excitement. He had turned off the gas, gone upstairs to bed, lighted the gas in his sleeping apartment and retired quite as had been his custom.
“ At nine o’clock the following morning he woke with a splitting headache, and experienced considerable cardiac and respiratory disturbance, and for several days after felt the effects of his indiscretion by languor and indisposition to mental or physical exertion and difficulty in concentration of attention. He considered that eighteen grains of cocaine was nearly a fatal dose for him, and if he had taken it in one dose instead of within twenty minutes it might have been disastrous. This experimenter did not observe any influence upon the ganglia at the base of the brain. There was no disturbance of sensibility, no anӕsthesia nor hyperӕsthesia, nor interference with motility except some muscles of the face, which were subject to slight twitching. There were no hallucinations.
“ Dr. Hammond asserted that there is no such thing as a “cocaine habit.” He had given cocaine to many patients, both male and female, and never had a single objection to the alkaloid being discontinued, not as much trouble in ceasing its use, in fact, as there would have been to give up tea or coffee, and nothing like so much as to have abandoned alcohol or tobacco. He personally used for a nasal affection, during four months, from sixteen to twenty grains a day, averaging about six hundred grains of cocaine a month, applied in solution to the mucous membrane of the nose. During this period he experienced slight mental exhilaration and some indisposition to sleep. Subsequently he used nearly eight hundred grains within thirty-five days. In each instance the drug was discontinued without the slightest difficulty.
“ Dr. Caudwell, of London, experimented upon himself with both Coca and cocaine. He took increasing doses of fluid extract of Coca until two ounces were taken at a dose. From this he experienced giddiness with unsteadiness of gait, followed by sensations of mental and physical activity when it seemed any exertion could have been undertaken without difficulty. Under cocaine, in doses of one grain he experienced drowsiness, followed by sleep, and then persistent insomnia. Two and a half grains produced frontal headache, mental excitement and marked insomnia. Three grains after abstinence from food for twenty-four hours produced drowsiness, slight vertigo and wakefulness with a sense of well being. On the following morning five grains produced giddiness with a supra-orbital headache and a sense of weight at the pit of the stomach, while the pupils were widely dilated, and there was inability for exertion. All unpleasant sensations following this experiment had passed in two hours, though dilatation of the pupils lasted for six hours.
“ Professor Bignon, of Lima, considers that the Peruvian Indians consume daily an amount of Coca which represents from thirty to forty centigrammes – [4.5 to 6.0 grains] of cocaine. He regards ten centigrammes of that alkaloid per day [1.5 grains] a good average dose for those unaccustomed to its use. The average initial dose of cocaine hypodermically should not exceed a quarter of a grain. Under a moderate dose of cocaine, the central nervous system is stimulated through a direct action on the nerve cells. There is psychic exaltation, with increased capacity for mental work, which passes off in a few hours and is followed by complete restoration to the normal condition without after depression. Indeed, whatever depression there may be precedes the exaltation. From larger doses, the medulla and the sensory columns of the spinal cord may be directly affected, but only after very large doses is there weakness and lassitude, and general anaesthesia can only follow from an excessive dose.
“ Under a poisonous dose of cocaine there is an initial increase of respiration and of the heart beat, both of which soon slow under the influence of paralysis of the vasomotor center, this effect of cocaine upon respiration and the circulation being similar to that from atropine. The pupils are widely dilated and do not respond to light. Involuntary movement of the muscles of mastication, as in chewing, and rotation of the head or body has been noted in animals. There may be epileptiform attacks, clonic convulsions or tetanus. The most common symptoms of cocaine poisoning are those of profound prostration, with dyspnœa, pallor, cyanosis and sweat.
“ When the drug has been taken by the stomach that organ should be evacuated and washed out, while in any case stimulants may be indicated, such as nitrite of amyl, ammonia, ether hypodermically, chloroform to check spasm of the respiratory muscles and even artificial respiration may be indicated. After the severe symptoms have passed chloral may be administered. Both chloral and morphine are regarded as antagonistic to cocaine. Recovery may take place even after a long period of unconsciousness. I was called in one case to a dentist’s office to resuscitate a patient after his careless injection of an unknown quantity of cocaine, and we labored over the subject eight hours before consciousness was restored.
“ Mosso puts the lethal dose of cocaine at 0.03 per kilogramme, in animals and in man it is probably less. Mannheim, from a collection of about a hundred cases of cocaine poisoning – of which nine were fatal – has determined that one gramme [15.43 grains], of the alkaloid may be considered a fatal dose in man. A “cocaine habit,” as already referred to, is not generally accepted. Yet symptoms presumably due to the excessive use of large doses of cocaine are described. These embrace frequency of pulse, relaxation of the arterial system, profuse perspiration, rapid fall of flesh and hallucinations of sight or feeling. A peculiar symptom of chronic cocaine poisoning is that known as Magnan’s symptom, after the name of the describer. It is an hallucination of sensation in which the patient complains of feeling a foreign body under the skin. While other hallucinations are common from poisons this is said to be distinctive of cocaine.
“ There is but one further feature in the physiological study of Coca Leaf that we have to consider, and that is the manner of its elimination from the body. From experiments of Dr. Helmsing it was long since determined that cocaine is very difficult of detection in animal tissues. This may be appreciated when the important role which it is possible that Coca plays in assimilation is considered. When taken into the stomach Coca Leaf soon disappears from the alimentary canal, being decomposed and gradually setting free the products to which its physiological action is due. As these several alkaloids are carried through the tissues, they enter into further chemical change whereby they are still further broken down, and only soon after the administration of a very large dose is it possible to recover the bases from the alkaline urine with benzoyl.
“ Immediately after a poisonous dose of cocaine given to a cat there was found a distinctive reaction in the urine and blood, but a diminished dose gave after a longer interval only faint tracings, which gradually disappeared. Because of this difficulty of detection the decomposition products of Coca, chiefly as ecgonine, are determined post-mortem by a process of assay. The comminuted tissue is mixed with two parts of acidulated alcohol and digested at 60o in a reflux condenser, the process being repeated with fresh alcohol and the filtrates evaporated to almost dryness. The residue is taken up with water, and the solution shaken out with ether, the residual concentrated liquid being precipitated with baryta and extracted repeatedly with ether. The ethereal solution is then evaporated in a vacuum and the residue tested for the alkaloid.
“The fact that the Coca Leaf products are so thoroughly consumed in the body indicates the important influence these substances exercise in nutrition, the philosophy of which has been more fully detailed in other chapters.”
Some Additional Musings on Cocaine and Coca Leaf
I think its fair to say that for the hundreds of years after Coca’s discovery by Europeans, and even after German scientists first developed large-scale processes for extraction of pure pharmaceutical-grade Cocaine, Coca Leaf extract in the form of tonics, tinctures, teas and wines, were manufactured by well-known “Houses” in Europe, Argentina, as well as all of Asia. Worldwide, Coca Leaf, Cocaine, and other forms of Coca-related medications had well-developed bases of many million users in the US, and even more in Europe and Asia.
Certainly a couple of obvious things have changed between the late 19th Century and now. Coca Leaf has become unavailable outside of Bolivia and Peru, and Cocaine has been criminalized worldwide, and everything remotely connected with the Coca plant has been thoroughly and professionally demonized.
Maybe most significantly, peoples’ bodies and lifestyles have changed pretty radically over the last 100-150 years. Very few people do actual physical work in 2015 compared with the both the urban and rural people of 1850 – 1900.
People today are almost invariably heavily medicated with prescription and OTC drugs as well as a wide variety of ‘recreational’ substances. The average person’s diet in 2015 is radically different from the diet of the 1800s, both in terms of the kinds of foods eaten and the degree of industrial processing of that food, and the average person today undoubtedly has hundreds, if not thousands of kinds of chemical residues in their body that didn’t exist in the 1800s.
So it is probably accurate to say that our 2015 bodies are very different compared with people in the late 1800s. I believe that our changed physiology can explain a lot of the difference between the experience of Cocaine users in the 1800s and today.
Although nothing that remotely justifies the harsh and vindictive police state that surrounds Cocaine production and distribution, there is huge chemical contamination in the chain as Coca Leaf becomes street powder.
I also question the common notion that even casual use of Cocaine leads to life-destroying addiction. Just as the Marijuana myth was created by the US government as pure evil propaganda I think that Cocaine has been similarly mythologized although the general public seems to have bought into the Cocaine myth to a far greater degree.
I am sharing these musings because the short excerpt above, taken from “The History of Coca – Divine Plant of the Incas” by William Golden Mortimer, MD (1901) makes some clearly well-informed statements about Cocaine that might strike most people as pretty unbelievable today. I have studied Dr. Mortimer’s writings carefully and have no doubt at all that when he cites the experiences of a wide range of medical professionals with both Coca Leaf and Cocaine he is reporting their findings accurately. However he makes the assertion, based on his experience, that while Cocaine can be a dangerous drug under certain circumstances, in the vast majority of cases of people who were using it in the late 1800s it was not a problem at all.
So if what the author says is true and accurate, what has changed between then and now? Has Cocaine changed, or have people changed, or are we simply dealing with another instance of self-serving government propaganda? You may agree that it is unlikely that Cocaine has changed – the pure alkaloid, not at all. Yet the society that Dr. Mortimer describes doesn’t appear to be teetering on the brink of coke-crazed holocaust.
If you find Dr. Mortimer to be credible then it appears that pure unadulterated Cocaine, if used by millions, would probably not be a problem drug if the people were taking it weren’t already chronically poisoned by their society in the first place. And, for the vast majority of people who use Cocaine today it is not a problem – I suspect that many of the reported 5000 Cocaine overdose deaths might be arguable. I have no doubt that our government simply cherry-picks the most pathetic cases and hold them up like boogeymen to scare the naïve among us into supporting militarization of the police under the rubric of a “War On Drugs”.
Yet in the face of all this psychopathic raw power the Medical Marijuana movement demonstrates that when the time has come, and if there is broad popular knowledge that the government’s game is exposed as total fraud, the most vicious anti-drug laws can be reversed. It really is amusing to watch the Federal agencies keep up their already-lost war in the face of growing independence of the states.
I hope that it is only a matter of time before anyone living in any State who wants to grow any natural medicinal plant for his/her own family use, and can do so without any interference by government at any level. Before the fight for legal medical Cannabis was fought and won by millions of enlightened citizens I would have called my own hopes Utopian – but that has changed forever.