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Cocaine: Anyone for Charlie?

12 April 05 words: Matt Brown
All drugs have interesting highlights, but cocaine in particular has enjoyed a prosperous and high profile existence on the public stage

Cocaine All drugs have interesting highlights buried within their past, but cocaine in particular, has enjoyed a prosperous and high profile existence on the public stage.

Cocaine was finally made illegal in the early 1900's, after a 2000-year history as a major ingredient in everything from depression cures to soft drinks. The first known addicts were the Incas of South America, who chewed the coca leaf, from which the drug is extracted. When the Spanish came along to conquer the Incas, they promptly banned the coca leaf, claiming it to be "an evil agent of the Devil". This moral high ground quickly vanished when they found the Incas couldn't mine gold for them without the leaf. In a convenient reversal of beliefs, the Catholic Church immediately began growing coca leaves, and distributing them among the workers.

Indeed it is the Spanish conquistadors we have to thank for introducing cocaine to Europe, where it certainly made an impact. Advertised as the Elixir of life, it was suggested that cocaine could be used as a substitute for food, so people might go for a month, now and again, without eating. Although, surprisingly, this didn't catch on too well, the use of cocaine was viewed as medicinal, with William Shakespeare and Sigmund Freud amongst its many fans. It is even thought that Robert Louis Stephenson wrote `the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' whilst on a 6-day cocaine binge. And who can say they are surprised?

Until it was outlawed, cocaine was sold over the counter in chocolate bars, toothpaste, cigarettes and, most notably, soft drinks. One particular beverage contained extracts from the coca leaf (the origin of cocaine), and the kola nut (a source of caffeine). Named after these two extracts, Coca-Cola was a hit (quite literally), and although originally sold as a hangover cure, the soft drink quickly became part of everyday life. Happy days I'm sure. Unfortunately, the pesky Hamilton Narcotic Act meant that cocaine had to be removed from the drink, although extracts from the coca leaf still give Coca-Cola its distinctive taste to this day.

Once cocaine was banned, the drug's influence on culture switched from the innocent public exterior of Coca-Cola, to the murky underground world of the illegal drugs trade. In the 1980's, America experienced a `cocaine epidemic' throughout the inner city areas, and in response, the U.S government announced the intention to wage a `war on drugs'. A worthy cause, if the government hadn't started the epidemic in the first place. At the time, an unfavourable government regime was present in Nicaragua, one that the U.S was keen to see the back of. To solve this problem, they funded a rebel guerrilla force, the Contras, to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. And what better way to find funding than the drugs trade? The CIA allowed the Contras to ship huge amounts of highly lucrative crack-cocaine into the U.S, providing the guerrillas with money to buy guns, and leaving cities like Los Angeles with a huge cocaine habit.

The `war on drugs' did reduce the number of cocaine addicts, but to nowhere near the numbers prior to the epidemic. This highly public clampdown also provided the government with a prime excuse to seize millions of dollars worth of property bought with drug money. So with the combination of an unfriendly government overthrown, and an extra income added to their budget, the U.S government were on to a win-win situation. And the potential financial gain of cocaine has not been lost on other areas of the world. Peru, the largest coca leaf-producing nation in the world, is currently home to a vicious drug-fuelled civil war. The Peru government, together with the U.S, is currently involved in trying to wipe out the coca-leaf plantations lining the Peruvian hills, in an attempt to stem the illegal drugs trade. Needless to say, the heavily armed drugs cartels aren't too happy about this, and neither are the coca leaf farmers. The result is a cooperative mixture of drug lords and rebel guerrillas, fighting against the rather impotent Peruvian forces, coupled to a token U.S military presence. 

With the fight raging on, you'd be forgiven for thinking the rebels are winning. Cocaine use in America is on the rise, and has been since 1991. A faster pace of life calls for a faster pace of mind, and cocaine has now taken the mantle as today's designer drug of choice, with footballers and T.V celebrities constantly being caught in the act. But, if we can step outside of our prohibitionist culture for a second, why is cocaine, or indeed any drug, so bad? Many people are now coming round to the idea that experiencing the highs and lows of life may be essential for a healthy existence. And what better way to find these different states of consciousness than by getting off your face? We are all drawn to altering our state of mind, whether it be through exercise, alcohol, magic mushrooms, cocaine or any of the countless other drugs out there. If the addiction problem could be controlled, cocaine might just make a comeback in the legal market. After all, the Incas and their descendents have being doing coke for over 2000 years, and they're still enjoying themselves.

More in this series on LeftLion:
Alcohol: The people's poison
Cannabis: The good, the bad and the forgetful
Caffeine: A wake up call
Mushrooms: Room For A Psychedelic Revolution?

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