Cocaine Medicine

Before the West came to South America, the coca bush was highly revered by its indigenous population as a "divine plant".

The Incas used its leaves as currency. The Peruvians chewed them as fuel for high altitude treks and measured their journeys in "cicadas" - the time between doses of coca. In the 16th century, the Spaniards came and tried to eradicate its unholy use. They, however, learned their native slaves wouldn't work without it.

It took until the mid-19th century for the industrialized West to get a taste of Peru's 4,000-year-old secret, as German pediatrician Albert Niemann extracted cocaine hydrochloride from coca leaves in 1860.

The public got its first whiff of cocaine when it was used successfully to anesthetize the surface of the human eye in 1884. In the days before painkillers, this was very big news.

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super product

For the ham-fisted pharmaceutical industry of the time, cocaine became a super product. Here was an ancient substance that could change the world, a 'miracle cure' prescribed for, intriguingly enough drug addiction, alcoholism, depression and fatigue.

Endless cocaine syrups, pastilles, wines, tonics, and elixirs appeared, alongside toothache drops, hemorrhoid creams, balms, ointments and cordials. These products usually contained huge amounts of cocaine. Rayno's Hay Fever remedy, for example, was basically a pure cocaine solution. The bottle recommended that you take it "two to ten times a day."

By 1900, cocaine was in the top five pharmaceutical products in the US and was selling for around $2.50 per gram.

This was the real thing.

Synthetic versions of cocaine without the psychoactive effects are still being used extensively as local anesthetics in medicine, mainly by dentists (Novocain) and for numbing the lower body (epidurals) in childbirth.