Cocaine is one of the most dangerous and deadly drugs in the world. In 2020, more than 20 million people worldwide had injected cocaine at least once during the year. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 32,537 people died from a cocaine overdose. The number of cocaine addicts in the United States is estimated to be 1.4 million, which is just over 1.5% of the population. This article describes the origins of the precious coca leaf and its transformation into the drug known as cocaine.
The first traces of the coca leaf
The word cocaine almost immediately conjures the image of a humanoid figure slumped in an alley after an overdose. If cocaine wreaks havoc, it’s because Western civilization has done what it often does too well: taking a magical plant, refining it to perfection, and putting it on the market without reserve.
Modernity has been built on drugs, and cocaine is no exception. Just as coffee greased the wheels of the French Revolution, just as beer funded the modern state, cocaine contributed to the creation of modern medicine. At the dawn of the 20th century, cocaine facilitated the development of the first reliable modern anesthesia, partially inspired Freud’s psychoanalysis, and significantly contributed to the emergence of modern surgery.
Its scientific name is Erythroxylaceae coca, but the locals called it Cuca (or khoka) in reference to the Aymara language, originally meaning “the plant.” Indeed, cuca was regarded as “the” plant. This seemingly harmless shrub, not exceeding two meters in height, is recognizable by its oval dark green leaves. The plant grows easily on the eastern slopes of the Andes, up to several thousand meters above sea level. The genus comprises more than 250 species, containing an average of 0.7% volume of cocaine.
The consumption of coca leaves dates back more than 8,000 years. Even then, coca leaves were recognized for their impressive medicinal properties. “The” plant had the ability to effectively combat hunger, fatigue, and pain. People in the region quickly understood the benefits of cuca leaves to survive their arduous journeys through the Andes.
Cocaine Among the Incas: One Incredibly Useful Plant
The first to truly capitalize on the drug were the Incas, a vast empire whose territory, at its peak, stretched from Ecuador to southern Chile. Ruled by the all-powerful Inca emperor, this extensive realm quite literally ran on cocaine. The plant, deemed sacred, served as currency, wages, and medicine.
Coca leaves were also present in all religious ceremonies and weddings. Most individuals who had to walk for a while carried a pouch of coca, and a significant portion of the population walked around with one or two leaves stuck to their cheek.
Contrary to what one might believe, coca leaves are not eaten. They are placed in the cheek pouch in tandem with alkaline substances, often vegetable ash mixed with lemon juice. There is no one-size-fits-all model, but it is generally accepted that another alkaline ingredient (llipa) is necessary to effectively absorb the low quantity of psychoactive substance contained in a coca leaf – less than 1%.
The Incas also offered ample sacrifices to their gods during extricate public cermonies, where high priests chewed coca leaves while chanting somewhat hallucinatory incantations. Coca was burned so the gods on high could smell it. Coca was also crucial for warfare. The emperor himself was a big fan: two emperors even renamed their wives in honor of the divine plant.
At the height of its power, the Inca Empire dominated the entire west coast of the Americas, from Ecuador to Chile, covering a distance of 4,000 kilometers and encompassing a population of nearly 12,000,000 inhabitants. The concept was simple: peasants could do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they paid a third of their harvest to the Empire.
To make this immense personal garden work, the Inca Empire built 24,000 kilometers of roads used by extraordinary runners, running slightly under the euphoric and anti-fatigue effects of cocaine. Some European commentators reported that they could run non-stop for days. Although these accounts should be taken with a grain of salt, it is known that the road and messenger system was meticulously organized, and it would be improbable that coca leaves were not used.
Spanish Conquest and the evil of profit
Europe’s First Encounters with the Coca Leaf were Marked by the Blood of Spanish Colonization. Preceded by European diseases in the Andes, the army of the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro arrived before a people already devastated. In the face of cannons and muskets, the empire crumbled. The great Inca was captured, humiliated, and stripped of all the kingdom’s gold. Pizarro’s legendary greed and that of his men soon triggered a cycle of violence that continues to this day. The conquerors were intoxicated by the idea of El Dorado and had eyes only for the shimmering gold.
It was the clergy who took an interest in the coca leaf, under the dogmatic gaze of the Christian Church. Revolted by its effects, the plant was soon demonized as the devil’s advocate. It must be said that the European elite also did not find it very appealing to chew leaves for hours, an activity that seemed at best lazy and useless.
As a result, the practice and cultivation were banned. This would not last.
The Hell of Potosí Mines : When addiction began
The King of Spain was also thirsty for conquests. 20% of the profits from the institutionalized plunder of South America went directly into his pockets. Charles V’s Empire was costly, and his greed extended from Spain to Bolivia, where the mines of Potosí, an extraordinary silver reserve, were discovered. It might not have been El Dorado, but it was close. At the time, the mines of Potosí were the most significant on the planet. Silver flowed abundantly, and production costs were low.
Initially, the venture was at least profitable: indigenous people were hired and received a reasonably decent wage. But as the reserves dwindled, they had to dig deeper and deeper, in tunnels that sank into the bowels of the earth, spending long hours in darkness, at the mercy of a fatal collapse.
And that’s not the worst of it. As the deposits became scarcer, the ore needed to be purified. A new technique from Europe involved dissolving silver in mercury to clarify the harvest. Mercury is notoriously harmful to health, destroying everything it touches upon contact with the skin. The suffocating air from the depths was now joined by the stench of mercury and other chemical poisons that polluted the air of Potosí. In total, tens of thousands of people paid with their lives for the grand castles of the Habsburg Empire.
This is where the story of the coca leaf takes a sinister turn.
The “Indians” now refusing to descend into the pits, they had to be forced down. What was initially a six-year conscription gradually turned into an annual one. Miners had long gone unpaid. In theory, they should have been fed. In practice, they were forced into debt to buy food and shelter. Living conditions in the camps were horrendous.
The only thing that made this daily misery barely bearable was the coca leaf.
The Spanish administration had the idea of legalizing coca under strict fiscal regulation. Coca began to be supplied to the conscripts. Not only did the miners of Potosí consume more coca than ever before, but it was also in the mines of Potosí that the devastating effects of cocaine addiction were observed for the first time. Miners who survived collapses, privations, long working hours, and the combined effects of multiple chemical intoxications were mere shadows of themselves.
Cocaine: The Panacea of the Fin de Siècle
Coca arrived in Europe around the 16th century, but except for a few rare enthusiasts, no one seemed interested until the 19th century. Apart from a few reports by early Spanish chroniclers, the coca leaf had hardly caught Europe’s attention. It was the neurologist Paolo Mantegazza who introduced it to the public in a report on the effects of the coca leaf on cognition in 1859. A year later, the drug was synthesized for the first time. The coca extract was named cocaine. People began talking about a revitalizing tonic, capable of curing anything and inducing euphoria. The medical potential was evident.
Pharmacists, doctors, and traveling salesmen quickly engaged in an arms race. In the years that followed, a whole series of cocaine-infused beverages emerged. The most popular was Mariani wine, created by a Corsican chemist impressed by Mantegazza’s writings.
Mr. Mariani touted the merits of his product, proclaiming loudly that Mariani wine strengthened the body and mind… a true miracle cure! Mariani – or rather his wine – became a sensation, even sending a case of wine to the President of the United States, William McKinley, whose secretary wrote back to say the president was already familiar with it.
He then sent a box to Pope Leo XIII, who awarded him a special papal gold medal in honor of his creation. Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant, the great general of the American Civil War, took a spoonful of Vin Mariani every night before bed for the last five months of his life, enough to sustain him through the writing of his memoirs.
Mariani is credited with the early popularization of the coca leaf. Trained as a chemist, Mariani was also a marketing genius. He may have been one of the first to think of recruiting “influencers” to promote his product. He sent thousands of bottles to celebrities of his time, be they eminent figures, intellectuals, or actresses, to spread the word about the fine coca wine. The campaign was a huge success.
The Pope and the American President themselves send letters of gratitude to Mariani. Mariani, being a savvy advertiser, promptly places these letters in widely circulated newspapers. However, the basic ingredient remains unknown, and the final product is too expensive for the masses.
By 1880, cocaine is already well-known in medical circles, and Mariani’s Wine experiences such success that it opens branches in Montreal, Canada. But this rarity is far from the international scourge we know today. One of the men who contributed to the spread of recreational use – and one of the first official addicts – is Sigmund Freud.
Freud et la cocaïne
Freud is primarily known for having almost single-handedly founded psychoanalysis. Although his contribution is much more significant, and today so pivotal that it seems as though psychoanalysis belongs entirely to him, Freud also – regardless of what his detractors may think – popularized the concept of the unconscious mind and established the Oedipus complex.
What is also known is his passion for cocaine. Indeed, this drug deeply influenced the young physician.
It was a 26-year-old, ambitious and penniless young man who came across an article by a German doctor who had tested an hitherto unknown drug on Bavarian soldiers. Immediately captivated, Freud embarked on writing his first popular science book, “Über Coca” (About Coca), a comprehensive review of scientific literature that caught the attention of the American pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co., which offered him 60 guldens (currency in vogue in Vienna under the Habsburg Empire) to extol the virtues of the drug.
Freud immediately wrote to his fiancée that he might be on the verge of a major medical discovery and began recommending the drug to his close friends, even using it on his patients. Freud was convinced it was an effective remedy for the ailments of the time: neurosis (often attributed to women) and neurasthenia. These concepts, now outdated, actually referred to the existential malaise of the era: rapid industrialization, swift disruption of societal norms caused by technology, and generational dilemmas created by new urban values.
At that time, the drug was available over the counter, but at a very high price. The trap of addiction was still unknown: every patient prescribed cocaine interpreted their euphoria and the disappearance of their symptoms as a miraculous cure, although they were not cured at all. On the contrary, their excessive consumption of cocaine made them even sicker…
Freud, a faithful investigator of his time, tested the drug on himself and inevitably became addicted. He might even be one of the first recorded drug addicts in history. He spoke of it lovingly as a brilliant drug used as a remedy for his chronic depressions. His text, “Über Coca,” is infused with the euphoric allure of the coca leaf.
However, the story ended very tragically. Freud himself managed to overcome his addiction only after ten years, and at the cost of consuming more than 20 cigars a day.
His friend Ernst von Fleisch, a distinguished laboratory researcher, became addicted to morphine after a botched thumb amputation. This stoic man’s life became a living hell. His hand was plagued by a tangle of hypersensitive nerves, causing constant pain. Unable to sleep, he studied mathematics and learned Sanskrit. Witnessing this heroic courage, Freud took pity on his friend and watched over him.
After an especially harrowing night, Freud administered a strong dose of cocaine to him. Fleisch immediately regained his good spirits after a few heroic doses, only to fall back under the grip of morphine six weeks later.
The fall was even more abrupt than the ascent. Fleisch learned to combine cocaine and morphine to prolong his euphoric state. Deep in debt, unable to work, and depressed, Fleisch fell into a cycle of addiction that would cost him his life six years later.
Consumed by guilt, chain-smoking cigars, Freud kept a photo of his friend on his desk until the end of his life, before succumbing to a painful throat cancer.
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- “Cocaine: Global Histories” édité par Paul Gootenberg (1999)
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- “Between Coca and Cocaine: A Century or More of U.S.-Peruvian Drug Paradoxes, 1860-1980” par Paul Gootenberg, 2001, The Woodrow Wilson Center
- “Sigmund Freud en son temps et dans le nôtre“. par Élizabeth Roudinesco (2014)
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- “Riches from Potosi: The Silver of the Spanish Main” par Kris Lane (2021)
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