dude, where’s my septum

cocaine_coverI really wonder how some things are ever discovered. Like chewing coca leaves. For starters, you don’t really chew coca; you wad them up, put a dab of lye inside the wad while avoiding chemical burns, then just suck on that wad for hours while the cocaine slowly leaches out. Who was the first idiot to think of sucking on a lye ball?

It took until the late 1800s for cocaine to hit its stride in western culture. First, it was used as a local anesthetic, especially during eye surgeries (effective), then it was used for treatment of opium addiction (ineffective, unless the goal is to be addicted to two things instead of one), and finally it was sold mixed with wine if you just wanted to get wheeled (extremely effective).*

*Fun fact: Coca-Cola was born after Atlanta banned alcoholic drinks, and a local pharmacist was forced to come up with a soft alternative to his coca wine tonic.

As with all drugs, cocaine was eventually purported to cause deviant sexual behavior and/or moral degeneration. Cocaine, “they” said, led to uncontrolled erections in men and unquenchable sexual arousal in everyone; one textbook reported a cocaine-induced nymphomania so intense that even “The most sexually potent man must eventually give up the hope of satisfying such a woman. There was nothing left to do but flee in self-preservation.”

Cocaine was then linked to the other, an ever-changing target of white American fear. First the cocaine “problem” was the fault of Germans (in the wake of WWI), then unscrupulous “Orientals”, who led booming drug-and-white-slavery rings to fuel their mystic sexual practices. Eventually it was cocaine-crazed black men with superhuman strength and lust, unable to be stopped by simple white police officers and their moderately-sized handguns (phallic imagery alert). Though briefly popular with early 20th-century glitterati, a legal crackdown on cocaine use and the introduction of legal amphetamines like benzedrine and trucker speed led to a precipitous decline in cocaine consumption by the 1930s. Cocaine virtually disappeared before being resurrected in the 1970s (disco) and 1980s (Miami Vice, Pablo Escobar).

Some miscellaneous notes:

• Here’s a story about how freebasing (maybe) started: Workers in cocaine extraction plants would often smoke coca paste, a sort of sludge halfway in the process of transforming coca plants into cocaine. The paste was called “base” by the workers, because it is the base for cocaine. At some point, an American visited the workers, smoked the paste, and was impressed with the results. Trying to replicate the “base” after returning home, he first tried smoking plain cocaine. That didn’t work, so he looked up “base” in the dictionary and went from there.

Along with a chemist friend, he found that cocaine could be turned into a base by mixing it with an alkali, and that having done so, it could be smoked. They referred to this process as “freeing the base”, though of course what they’d done had absolutely nothing to do with the coca paste “base” smoked by the Peruvian workers. So either they got lucky, or the CIA invented it, not sure which. Incidentally, one of the first scientists to study freebasing had non-drug users come in and try it out; several men spontaneously ejaculated their first time smoking it. Dopamine is a hell of a neurotransmitter.

• Some conspiracy theorists argue that New Coke, which did not use any ingredients derived from coca, was developed as the result of the DEA strong-arming Coke into removing coca from their product. In the 1960s, Coke had been given dispensation to study coca production in a secret project in Hawaii—this in an attempt to grow cocaine-free coca. Near the end of the 1970s, their crops were wiped out by a mysterious and unknown fungus, which is now wiping out coca crops throughout Central and South America. No one’s sure exactly how it got from Hawaii to Bolivia, and many coca farmers believe the US deliberately infected their crops with a fungus that is now also wreaking havoc on staple food crops. Coke still imports coca, which is de-cocainized in a trade-secret process by a secretive chemical company.

• When the cocaine trade was booming in Miami (please see the enjoyable Cocaine Cowboys), so much cash was flowing in that in 1979 the Federal Reserve in Miami reported a surplus of more than $5 billion. When laws were introduced requiring that banks report deposits of more than $10,000, dealers would organize “bus tours,” in which groups of peons would pour out of a bus, each deposit $9500 dollars, pile back in the bus, and head to the next bank.

• In certain coastal towns where cocaine trafficking is common, fishermen refer to the occasional cocaine bales they reel in as “square grouper.”

• Not in the book, but Pablo Escobar imported a few hippos when building his pleasure palace in the early 1980s, and after his death they were left to roam his ranchland. They’ve since multiplied to more than 20, many have escaped the hacienda, and some have been hunted down and killed by the Colombian army to prevent their spread. At the height of the cartel, Escobar was spending upwards of $2500 a month on rubber bands to package the money, and was writing off some 10% of his proceeds as spoilage because rats in the warehouse would eat it.

• If you want some quality Keystone Kops-level stories about Iran Contra, this book is a good place to go. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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