Erythroxlon coca, a shrub indigenous to the upper jungles of the Andes mountains in South America, has been consumed for millennia by the various Indian tribes that have inhabited the region. The primary alkaloid of this plant, cocaine (first called erythroxyline), earned a reputation throughout the twentieth century as the quintessential American drug. Psychologist Ronald Siegel noted that "its stimulating and pleasure-causing properties reinforce the American character with its initiative, its energy, its restless activity and its boundless optimism." Cocaine—which one scholar called "probably the least understood and most consistently misrep-resented drug in the pharmacopoeia"—symbolizes more than any other illicit drug the twin extremes of decadent indulgence and dire poverty that characterize the excesses of American capitalism. The drug has provoked both wondrous praise and intense moral condemnation for centuries.
For the Yunga and Aymara Indians of South America, the practice of chewing coca was most likely a matter of survival. The coca leaf, rich in vitamins and proteins as well as in its popular mood-altering alkaloid, was an essential source of nourishment and strength in the Andes, where food and oxygen were scarce. The word "coca" probably simply meant "plant," suggesting the pervasiveness of the shrub in ancient life. The leaf also had both medical and religious applications throughout the pre-Inca period, and the Inca empire made coca central to religious cosmology.
Almost immediately upon its entrance into the Western frame of reference, the coca leaf was inextricable from the drama and violence of imperial expansion. In the sixteenth century the Spaniards first discounted Indian claims that coca made them more energetic, and outlawed the leaf, believing it to be the work of the Devil. After seeing that the Indians were indeed more productive laborers under the leaf's influence, they legalized and taxed the custom. These taxes became the chief support for the Catholic church in the region. An awareness of the political significance of coca quickly developed among the Indians of the Andean region, and for centuries the leaf has been a powerful symbol of the strength and resilience of Andean culture in the face of genocidal European domination.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when the cocaine alkaloid was isolated and extracted, cocaine began its rise to popularity in Europe and North America. The drug is widely praised during this period for its stimulating effects on the central nervous system, with many physicians and scientists, including Sigmund Freud, extolling its virtues as a cure for alcohol and morphine addiction. Others praised its appetite-reduction properties, while still others hailed it as an aphrodisiac. In 1859 Dr. Paolo Mantegazza, a prominent Italian neurologist, wrote, "I prefer a life of ten years with coca to one of a hundred thousand without it." Americans beamed with pride at the wonder drug that had been discovered on their continent; one American company advertised at least 15 different cocaine products and promised that the drug would "supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer indifferent to pain."
Angelo Mariana manufactured coca-based wine products, boasting having collected 13 volumes of praise from satisfied customers, who included well-known political leaders, artists, and an alarming number of doctors, "including physicians to all the royal households of Europe." Ulysses S. Grant, according to Mariana, took the coca-wine elixir daily while composing his memoirs. In 1885 John S. Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, also started selling cocaine-based wine, but removed the alcohol in response to prohibitionist sentiment and began marketing a soft drink with cocaine and gotu kola as an "intellectual beverage and temperance drink" which he called Coca-Cola.
It was not until the late 1880s and 1890s that cocaine's addictive properties begin to capture public attention in the United States. While cocaine has no physically addictive properties, the psychological dependence associated with its frequent use can be just as debilitating as any physical addiction. By the turn of the twentieth century the potential dangers of such dependence had become clear to many, and reports of abuse began to spread.
By 1900 the drug was at the center of a full-scale moral panic. Scholars have noted the race and class overtones of this early cocaine panic. In spite of little actual evidence to substantiate such claims, the American Journal of Pharmacy reported in 1903 that most cocaine users were "bohemians, gamblers, high-and low-class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps, and casual laborers." The moral panic directly targeted blacks, and the fear of cocaine fit perfectly into the dominant racial discourses of the day. In 1914 Dr. Christopher Koch of Pennsylvania's State Pharmacy Board declared that "Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain." David Musto characterized the period in this way: "So far, evidence does not suggest that cocaine caused a crime wave but rather that anticipation of black rebellion inspired white alarm. Anecdotes often told of superhuman strength, cunning, and efficiency resulting from cocaine. These fantasies characterized white fear, not the reality of cocaine's effects, and gave one more reason for the repression of blacks."
Cocaine was heavily restricted by the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 and was officially identified as a "narcotic" and outlawed by the United States government in 1922, after which time its use went largely underground until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it spread first in the rock 'n' roll subculture and then through the more affluent sectors of American society. It became identified again with American wealth and power, and its dangers were downplayed or ignored. As late as 1980 the use of powder cocaine was recognized even by some medical authorities as "very safe."
During the early 1970s, however, a coca epidemic began quietly spreading throughout South America. While the centuries-old practice of chewing fresh coca leaves by coqueros had never been observed to cause abuse or mania, in the 1970s a new practice developed of smoking a paste, called basuco or basé, that was a byproduct of the cocaine manufacturing process. Peruvian physicians began publicly warning of a paste-smoking epidemic. The reports, largely ignored at the time in the United States, told of basuco-smoking pastaleros being driven crazy by the drug, smoking enormous quantities chronically, in many cases until death.
In early 1974, a misinterpretation of the term basé led some San Francisco chemists to reverse engineer cocaine "base" from pure powder cocaine, creating a smokable mixture of cocaine alkaloid. The first "freebasers" thought they were smoking basuco like the pastaleros, but in reality they were smoking "something that nobody else on the planet had ever smoked before." The costly and inefficient procedure of manufacturing freebase from powder cocaine ensured that the drug remained a celebrity thrill. This was dramatized in comedian Richard Pryor's near-death experience with freebase in 1980.
Crack cocaine was most likely developed in the Bahamas in the late 1970s or early 1980s when it was recognized that the expensive and dangerous procedures required to manufacture freebase were unnecessary. A smokable cocaine paste, it was discovered, could be cheaply and easily manufactured by mixing even low quality cocaine with common substances such as baking soda. This moment coincided with a massive glut of cheap Colombian cocaine in the international market. The supply of cocaine coming into the United States more than doubled between 1976 and 1980. The price of cocaine again dropped after 1980, thanks at least partly to a CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)-supported coup in Bolivia.
Throughout the 1980s, cocaine again became the subject of an intense moral panic in the United States. In October of 1982, only seven months after retracting his endorsement for stronger warnings on cigarette packs, President Reagan declared his "unshakable" commitment "to do whatever is necessary to end the drug menace." The Department of Defense and the CIA were officially enlisted in support of the drug war, and military activity was aimed both at Latin American smugglers and at American citizens. While the United States Administration frequently raised the specter of "narcoterrorism" associated with Latin American rebels, most analysts agree that United States economic and military policy has consistently benefitted the powerful aristocracies who manage the cocaine trade.
In the mid-1980s, in the heat of the Iran-Contra scandal, evidence that members of the CIA's contra army in Nicaragua were heavily involved in the cocaine trade began to surface in the American press. This evidence was downplayed and denied by government officials, and generally ignored by the public until 1996, when an explosive newspaper series by Gary Webb brought the issue to public attention. While Webb's award-winning series was widely discredited by the major media, most of his claims have been confirmed by other researchers, and in some cases even admitted by the CIA in its self-review. The Webb series contributed to perceptions in African-American communities that cocaine was part of a government plot to destroy them.
As was the case at the turn of the twentieth century, the moral outrage at cocaine turned on race and class themes. Cocaine was suddenly seen as threatening when it became widely and inexpensively available to the nation's black and inner-city poor; its widespread use by the urban upper class was never viewed as an epidemic. The unequal racial lines drawn in the drug war were recognized by the United States Sentencing Commission, which in 1995 recommended a reduction in the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. Powder cocaine, the preferred drug of white upper class users, carries about 1/100th the legal penalties of equivalent amounts of crack.
The vilified figure of the inner-city crack dealer, however, may represent the ironic underbelly to the American character and spirit that has been associated with cocaine's stimulant effects. Phillippe Bourgois noted that "ambitious, energetic, inner-city youths are attracted to the underground economy precisely because they believe in Horatio Alger's version of the American dream. They are the ultimate rugged individualists."
—Bernardo Alexander Attias
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