Nevertheless, cocaine-containing patent medicines were popular—for hay fever, sinusitis, and as a general tonic. So were cocaine-containing wine and soft drinks. In a widely read 1888 story by the British physician Arthur Conan Doyle— “The Sign of Four” his fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, explains why he injects cocaine. It has been suggested—by Dr. David F. Musto, a psychiatrist and medical historian at Yale—that Holmes’s later obsession with Professor Moriarty, the master criminal he thinks is persecuting him, may have been a portrayal of cocaine-induced paranoia.
Anticocaine agitation rose in the early 1900s, fanned by hysterical scare stories that southern blacks, high on cocaine, might attack whites. By 1914 it had been outlawed, except for medical use. President Calvin Coolidge insisted that his personal physician prescribe cocaine drops for his ears, against seasickness. It didn’t do much good, the doctor wrote, but no harm either. Some society leaders and jazz musicians in the 1920s and ’30s sniffed illicit cocaine, mostly diverted from medical stocks. Coca leaves then also came from Dutch plantations on Java, which early on had imported plants and seeds from South America.
After the rise of the drug culture of the 1960s, cocaine became the champagne of drugs to those who could afford it—business executives, big-time pimps, rock singers, ballet stars, Hollywood and sports celebrities and their hangers-on. It’s harmless, it was said, and isn’t it wonderful? It was expensive, associated with glamour and power. Little gold cocaine spoons became a fad, openly worn on gold chains. Manhattan’s trendiest disco of the ’70s — Studio 54 or apartments to rent in brussels, where a moon with a huge cocaine spoon dangled over the pulsating dance floor—reportedly dispensed free cocaine to its most favored clientele. To keep pace with burgeoning demand, South American coca cultivation multiplied, and so did cocaine laboratories. The total amount seized by U. S. authorities in 1966 was 12 kilos. In 1969 it was 53; in 1970,267. Cocaine had begun to pour in.
Doctors now say the effects of cocaine are unpredictable. It might take three or four years before more and more sniffing of cocaine—in binges that may last a night or a weekend—will lead to serious medical problems. But there have been cases of a single use bringing death.
In June 1986 cocaine poisoning took the life of football star Don Rogers. The same month, All-America basketballer Len Bias, just drafted by the Boston Celtics, had celebrated with so much cocaine that he died of cardiac arrest. As newspapers and TV increasingly reported the cocaine troubles of sports stars, cocaine took on a new face to the public at large. What had happened?
Free basing, for one thing. The user takes cocaine hydrochloride, dissolves it in water, and treats it with ammonia or baking soda, then with ether and heat. The result is pure cocaine, so-called free base, to be smoked in a water pipe. It’ll hit the brain within 15 seconds. So—a rush, intense euphoria. Then restlessness, irritability. Insomnia. Compulsion to do it again. Often users find themselves hooked within six to eight weeks.