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Cocaine a legitimate medicine? Impossible!

Don’t be so hasty. In the nineteenth century, medical doctors had a limited arsenal of medications to relieve pain and suffering. So when cocaine was refined into a usable form in 1860, it quickly became a miracle drug, used to treat everything from depression to hay fever, and much in between. Pregnant women suffering from nausea and vomiting were advised to take a small dose every three hours during the day. It was used topically or intravenously to relieve the pain of surgeries on the eye, nose, and mouth. In their enthusiasm, doctors at first ignored or were ignorant of cocaine’s darker side.

With no legal boundaries, the new drug spread inevitably to the underworld of crime and prostitution and even into the homes of ordinary citizens under the guise of patent medicines like Crown Catarrh Powder or early soft drinks, which included forerunners of Coca-Cola. By the time its addictive powers were finally recognized, cocaine had claimed a number of victims, including some medical professionals who had injected themselves.

By the end of the century, states began to pass laws restricting the sale of cocaine only to those with a doctor’s prescription. And the federal Harrison Narcotic Act of 1915 put further restrictions on this dangerous drug in its transport over state lines.

Similar problems had already surfaced with the use of morphine as a pain reliever. Stay tuned for more about that one!

(If you want more detail about early cocaine use, consult this source: Courtwright, David T. “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cocaine in the United States,” in Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology, pp. 206-228. Ed. Jordan Goodman, Paul E. Lovejoy and Andrew Sherratt. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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