Scientific studies from the late 19th century proclaimed that an exceptional drug derived from the coca plant native to Peru was nearly unparalleled in its health benefits. Its myriad uses (encouraged by scientists, doctors and even Sigmund Freud) included the treatment of depression and morphine dependence, the prevention of malaria, influenza and “wasting diseases” and the counteracting of morning sickness in pregnant women.
“It is in exciting the cerebro-medullary and nervous muscular functions, in part, and partly in producing a soothing effect on the mucous membrane of the stomach, that [it] produces wonderful results in the conservation of energy,” asserted Angelo Mariani, the author of Coca and its Therapeutic Application (1896) and the man behind Vin Mariani, a then-popular concoction of coca extract and wine. He added deliriously that the drug increases longevity and promotes muscular energy, and advised its use “for stomatitis, gingivitis, aphthous ulceration . . . gastric disturbance in phthisis, and also for obesity.” Mariani declared that thousands of practitioners have endorsed this wonder drug for bronchitis, dyspnoea and even epilepsy without exerting “any injurious effect on the system.” Its anesthetic properties were helpful in delicate eye surgeries, and according to J. Leonard Corning, M.D., “this [tonic] is undoubtedly the most potent for good in the treatment of exhaustive and irritative conditions of the central nervous system.”
Coca was used in several trendy tonic beverages said to be used and endorsed by top celebrities of the day, including “Emperors, Empress[es], Princes, Cardinals, Archbishops” and even the Pope. But when further scientific research exposed the negative effects of cocaine, public distrust and new laws forced significant changes. Vin Mariani is now a hazy memory. Another tonic beverage, Coca-Cola, survived and even thrived by gradually eliminating the medicinal claims along with the extract of the coca leaf from which the potion gained half of its name.
In time, the true nature of this dangerous and addictive drug became more apparent. Some of the claims of the medicinal benefits of cocaine and extracts of the coca plant are now known to be frighteningly absurd while others may be valid. As with other illicit drugs used for recreational purposes, scientists have synthesized several useful medicinal properties of cocaine; for example, benzocaine, proparacaine and tetracaine.
There is more good news. After nearly a century of battling the myriad problems associated with cocaine, there finally seems to have been a notable decrease in its use. According to a report released in August 2007 involving more than 4.4 million drug tests, there was a 15.9 percent decline in the number of positive results for cocaine among those tested in the U.S. workforce during the first six months of 2007 compared to results from the previous year.
In an official press release, John Walters, Director of National Drug Control Policy, said he is encouraged by the data. Although the double-digit drop is remarkable, officials note that it is difficult to determine whether workers are choosing not to use cocaine or if they simply lack access to the drug.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that in July 2007 “findings from Federal intelligence and law enforcement sources noted reports of cocaine shortages in 37 U.S. cities during the first 6 months of 2007. Several of the cities noted by Federal sources are also reporting increases in the price of cocaine—and in some instances a rapid doubling of prices—suggesting that the U.S. market for cocaine may be under strain.”
Today, the risks associated with illicit cocaine use are common knowledge. The abuse of cocaine can cause irritability, restlessness, paranoia and psychosis, in which the user loses touch with reality. Disturbances in heart rhythm and heart attacks, chest pain and respiratory failure, strokes, seizures and headaches, and even sudden death are known effects of cocaine use and abuse.
It is too soon to tell if this apparent decline in cocaine use in the United States is a trend. The dramatic drop to the lowest use in the 10 years of the ongoing report may be due to short supply, or it may be that the public is finally learning a better way after years of witnessing and considering the deadly effects of cocaine. Either way, it is heartening news.