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History of Cocaine, Medical Use

Toothache Cures and Patent Medicines
Cocaine was first synthesized in pure form by Albert Niemann. In 1860, he extracted pure cocaine powder from the leaves of Erythroxylum coca (more commonly known as the coca plant). Soon after it was isolated, cocaine was used to try to cure almost all the illnesses and maladies that were known to man.

It wasn't long after the isolation of pure cocaine until people became aware of the addictive potential of the drug. Today, use in medicine had been tempered by experience. Medical use has been largely restricted to producing local anesthesia. Even in this area, the dangers of cocaine led to the early development of safer drugs.

One of its first non medical uses was military. In 1883 Theodor Aschenbrandt administered cocaine to members of the Bavarian army. It was found that the drug enhanced their endurance on manoeuvre. His positive findings were published in a German medical journal, which brought the effects of this wonder drug to a wider medical audience, including Sigmund Freud (see below).

In the USA, cocaine was sold over-the-counter until 1916. It was widely used in tonics, toothache cures, patent medicines, and chocolate cocaine tablets. Prospective buyers were advised (in the words of pharmaceutical firm Parke-Davis) that cocaine "could make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain".

When combined with alcohol, it yielded a further potently reinforcing compound, now known to be cocaethylene. Thus cocaine was a popular ingredient in wines, notably Vin Mariani. Coca wine received endorsement from prime-ministers, royalty and even the Pope.

One medical use that was found early in the history of cocaine, and which the drug is still used for today (rarely), is that of a good surface anesthetic. Beginning in the late 1880s surgical procedures using local anesthetics (numbing a specific area to pain) were starting to be used instead of general anesthesia (rendering a person unconscious).

This was due to experiments that were conducted by William Halstead, using cocaine. William Halstead was one of the four founders of The Johns Hopkins Medical School. He is often referred to as the Father of American Surgery.

Unfortunately William experimented on himself by injecting cocaine, to see if surgery could be performed using cocaine as a local anesthetic. After experimenting for a time, he became addicted.

The addiction grew so bad it put his career on the line. He stopped shooting cocaine and began taking morphine instead. A habit that probably lasted the rest of his life.

Cocaine Toothache Drops Ad, 1885

Coca-Cola was invented in 1885 and first sold to consumers in 1886. At that time, it was sold as a patent medicine. It was promoted as a temperance drink offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol. The new beverage was invigorating and popular.

Until the early 1900's, one of the ingredients was cocaine. Today, coca-cola still uses coca leaves for flavoring. The company imports several tons of coca leaves from South America each year. However, the leaves are used only for flavoring, since the cocaine has been removed.

A coca leaf typically contains between 0.1 and 0.9 percent cocaine. If chewed in such form, it rarely presents the user with any social or medical problems. When the leaves are soaked and mashed, however, cocaine is extracted as a coca-paste. The paste is 60 to 80 per cent pure. It is usually exported in the form of the salt, cocaine hydrochloride.

This is the powdered cocaine most common, until recently, in the West. Drug testing for cocaine aims to detect the presence of its major metabolite, the inactive benzoylecgonine. Benzoylecgonine can be detected for up to five days in casual users. In chronic users, urinary detection is possible for as long as three weeks.

Sigmund Freud the father of psychoanalysis, in the early 1880s began to experiment with cocaine. At a time when he was undergoing a low period in his life, he reported that cocaine lifted his spirit, and took his mind off his professional and financial difficulties. He sent cocaine to his fiancee, telling her it would make her strong and give her cheeks a red color.

Freud was to play a significant role in the development of the Western cocaine industry. I take very small doses of it regularly and against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success, he observed. Drug giants Merck and Parke Davies both paid Freud to endorse their rival brands. He wrote several enthusiastic papers on cocaine, notably Uber coca (1884).

Taken from "On Cocaine" by Sigmund Freud
A few minutes after taking cocaine, one experiences a certain exhilaration and feeling of lightness. One feels a certain furriness on the lips and palate, followed by a feeling of warmth in the same areas; if one now drinks cold water, it feels warm on the lips and cold in the throat. One other occasions the predominant feeling is a rather pleasant coolness in the mouth and throat.

During this first trial I experienced a short period of toxic effects, which did not recur in subsequent experiments. Breathing became slower and deeper and I felt tired and sleepy; I yawned frequently and felt somewhat dull. After a few minutes the actual cocaine euphoria began, introduced by repeated cooling eructation. Immediately after taking the cocaine I noticed a slight slackening of the pulse and later a moderate increase.

I have observed the same physical signs of the effect of cocaine in others, mostly people my own age. The most constant symptom proved to be the repeated cooling eructation. This is often accompanied by a rumbling which must originate from high up in the intestine; two of the people I observed, who said they were able to recognize movements in their stomachs, declared emphatically that they had repeatedly detected such movements.

Often, at the outset of the cocaine effect, the subjects alleged that they experienced an intense feeling of heat in the head. I noticed this in myself as well in the course of some later experiments, but on other occasions it was absent. In only two cases did coca give rise to dizziness. On the whole the toxic effects of coca are of short duration, and much less intense than those produced by effective doses of quinine or salicylate of soda; they seem to become even weaker after repeated use of cocaine.