When Cocaine Was Sold Over the Counter

October 19, 2014
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In Part One of our new series, A Selective History of Hard Drugs, Henry Vespa begins taking a look at how certain substances have worked themselves into the public bloodstream…

There are a lot of entertaining memes on Facebook smirking at the ridiculousness of yesteryear. Learn-to-read books with their stilted middle class English; sexist advertising (“Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer!”); children playing with guns (“Accidental discharge impossible”, “Papa says it won’t hurt us”). And so on. All so we can feel nicely advanced and superior compared to our parents and grandparents’ generations (and in 50-60 years’ time our children won’t be laughing at us at all, will they?).

Another common theme is drugs: The substances that we’ve been warned about all our lives – “Just say no!” “This is your brain on drugs.” – were once freely available over the counter. The so-called scourge(s) of our modern times, these substances that allow the experience of ecstasy and illumination and alternate perception (in moderation, of course) were once the equivalent of a tab of aspirin or a can of Red Bull.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Got a tickly cough? Take some laudanum. Feeling a bit tired? Drink Coca-Cola (you knew where the name came from, right?) But now, here we are, still in the hangover of the 20th century and part of the legacy of the last hundred years is that remedies once dispensed by pharmacists are now only available from somebody on “the wrong side of the law”. What happened?

The oft-cited reason is that without regulation, addiction (especially to the opiates) was rampant and the modern world was at risk of going down the tubes. But it can’t be a simple backlash against addiction. We still have hugely addictive substances that are virtually guaranteed to kill you (alcohol and tobacco, for example) which are perfectly legal and mostly encouraged – Western culture continues to revolve around drinking and smoking to excess however much the advertisers are force to ask us to indulge “responsibly”. Maybe it’s the fact that with these particular substances we can still function at work on a Monday morning, and they take longer to kill you than say, a good old-fashioned heroin habit. So we stay productive for longer, but don’t actually hang around too long after retirement… Cynical? Moi?

Cocaine tooth drops advertisement. Bears an 1885 date.

Anyway, history would suggest that it’s perfectly possible to make a reasonable contribution to society while enjoying the odd syringe full of your favourite high. Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that Freud advanced human thought as well as created the field of psychoanalysis, and he was a famous proponent of cocaine, allegedly coming up with many of his insights while off his face on marching powder. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, is on record as saying that Cambridge academics regularly used LSD as a “thinking tool” – apparently, he even intuited the double-helix shape while tripping. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Charles Dickens but I can’t deny he was a productive type, writing a lot of books and stories, all the while enjoying a pipe of opium in the evenings. Even fictional role models were in on it: Sherlock Holmes resorted to a 7% intravenous solution of cocaine whenever he needed to stimulate his thinking just that little further. We might even say that without hard drugs, we wouldn’t have the USA (seriously, Columbus was looking for an alternative route to India because Queen Isabella wanted a new source of opium for Spain).

I should say, this is not going to be a pro-drugs polemic – I know there have been many, many lives utterly ruined by addiction. The point is more to take a look at why attitudes and laws changed and ask what makes us think we’re any better off today? I’d suggest that in the majority of those lives “ruined” by hard drugs, law enforcement practices and negative societal attitudes played a role in the ruination process? And I’ll also admit up front to being probably less experienced than most in these realms. So, not so much a personal crusade as a personal fascination: how does something once seen as so good get turned into its opposite? And why?

In the words of the Steppenwolf song, “The Pusher”:

But the pusher don’t care
Ah, if you live or if you die.
God damn the pusher,
God damn, I say, the pusher,
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man.

The question is: who is the pusher, really?


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