While this may not seem like such a bad thing, the great number of physical side effects that accompany that high, combined with the powerful psychological dependence it creates, makes it an extremely dangerous drug to take. As a very powerful stimulant, cocaine not only gives users more energy, it makes them feel confident and even euphoric, meaning they are extremely elated or happy, usually for no reason. This feeling of elation and power makes users believe they can do anything, yet when this high wears off, they usually feel upset, depressed, tired, and even paranoid. Cocaine has a very interesting history: It has gone from being considered a mild stimulant and then a wonder drug, to a harmless “recreational” drug, and finally to a powerfully addictive and very dangerous illegal drug. Although cocaine has, in fact, been all of these things at one time or another, we know it today to be an addictive drug that can wreck a person physically, mentally, and socially. It can also easily kill people.
Cocaine is extracted from the leaves of the coca shrub (Erythroxylum coca), which grows in the tropical forests on the slopes of the Andes Mountains of Peru. A second species, Erythroxylum novagranatense, grows naturally in the drier mountainous regions of Columbia. For thousands of years, the native populations of those areas chewed the leaves of these plants to help them cope with the difficulty of living at such a high altitude. Chewing raw coca leaves (usually combined with ashes or lime) reduced their fatigue and suppressed their hunger, making them better able to handle the hard work they had to do to live so high up in the mountains. The coca leaves were also used during religious ceremonies and for rituals such as burials. The feelings that the leaves gave to their chewers made them consider the coca plant to be a gift from the gods.
Once European explorers started coming to the Americas in the late fifteenth century, it was only a matter of time until invaders, such as the Spanish, came to the New World seeking riches. By the time the Spanish arrived in what is now Peru, the people of that land, known as the Incas, were already a civilization in decline, and they were easily subdued and conquered. The Spaniards eventually learned that giving coca leaves to native workers enabled them to force the workers to do enormous amounts of work in the gold and silver mines that were located in high altitudes. For the next two hundred years, although some coca plants were taken back to Europe, they were not popular or well-known since they did not travel well and were useless if dried out. Further, the Europeans did not like all the chewing and spitting required to get at the plant’s active ingredient, and until this part of the plant could be isolated, coca leaves were not very much in demand.
All of this changed by the middle of the nineteenth century when German physician Albert Niemann perfected the process of isolating the active part of the drug and improved the process of making it. Niemann extracted a purified form of cocaine from the coca leaves, and wrote about the anesthetic or numbing feeling obtained when he put it on his tongue. Cocaine then began its inevitable introduction into medicine, drink, and finally drug abuse. First it was considered by many doctors to be a wonder drug, and they began prescribing it for all sorts of physical and mental problems. By the 1880s, cocaine was even added to a very popular “medicinal” wine called Vin Mariani. The famous Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, who would become the founder of psychoanalysis, published a paper in 1884 that made many wrong medical claims for cocaine. Although he would later withdraw his claims, Freud did write at the time, “The use of coca in moderation is more likely to promote health than to impair it.”
In 1888, a soft drink named “Coca-Cola” was developed in America that contained cocaine and advertised itself as “the drink that relieves exhaustion.” By 1908, however, the makers of Coca-Cola realized their mistake and removed all the cocaine from it, using only caffeine as a stimulant. By then, the initial enthusiasm for cocaine was seen to be undeserved, and many cases of overuse and dependence eventually forced lawmakers to take action against it. Consequently, in 1914 the United States introduced the Harrison Narcotic Act, which made cocaine illegal. After that, cocaine use was popular only with a fairly small number of artists, musicians, and the very rich, until the 1970s. In that decade, cocaine use skyrocketed as many young people who had earlier smoked marijuana took to cocaine as a drug they believed had no side effects, was safe, and was not addictive.
All of these beliefs were eventually seen to be terribly untrue, as a cocaine epidemic in the 1980s claimed many lives, such as that of comedian John Belushi, and wrecked numerous other lives, such as that of the comedian Richard Pryor. Once it is understood what happens to a person’s nervous system when he or she ingests or takes in cocaine, it is not surprising that the results are often bad and sometimes tragic. The cocaine sold on the streets is usually a white crystalline powder or an off-white chunky material. It is usually diluted with other substances, like sugar, and is introduced into a person’s body by sniffing, swallowing, or injecting it. Most people “snort” the powder or inhale it through their nose, since any of the body’s mucous membranes will absorb it into the bloodstream. Injecting the drug means that it must first be turned into a liquid. Both ways create an immediate effect. Smoking “crack” cocaine delivers a more potent high, since crack is distilled cocaine. In its “rock” form it cannot be snorted, but is smoked in pipes. The name “crack” comes from the crackling sound these rock crystals make when heated and burned.
However the active part of the drug gets into the body, it delivers the same effect to the person’s central nervous system, depending on the amount taken and the user’s past drug experience. Usually within seconds, it travels to the brain and produces a sort of overall anesthetic effect because it interferes with the transmission of information from one nerve cell to another. Since this interference is going on within the reward centers of the brain, the user experiences a fairly short-term high that is extremely pleasurable. Physically, the user’s heart is racing, and his blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature also increase. The user feels temporarily more alert and energetic. The problem is that these feelings do not last very long, and the user must do more cocaine to recapture them.
In tests with experimental animals, cocaine is the only drug that the animals will repeatedly and continuously demand on their own to the point of killing themselves. Although cocaine is not physically addictive the way heroin is (meaning that the user physically craves the drug and suffers withdrawal when off it), it nonetheless creates a profound psychological dependence in which the mind craves the ecstasy that comes with the drug. Further, since the user experiences fatigue and depression when he or she stops, there is little reason to want to quit. Over time, these cravings get stronger and stronger, and the user can only think of how to get another “hit.” This obviously makes them unable to live a normal life without the drug, which has by now taken over their lives.
Severe and heavy overuse can make the abuser suffer dizziness, headache, anxiety, insomnia, depression, hallucinations, and have problems moving about. The increase in blood pressure can cause bleeding in the brain as well as breathing problems, both of which have killed many a user. Often, even physically fit people like Len Bias, the All-American basketball star from the University of Maryland, can suddenly die from ingesting cocaine. The medical risks associated with this drug are great, especially since there is no antidote for an overdose. Taking cocaine also has legal consequences, and besides the disorder and dysfunction it brings to a person’s life, it can also land them in jail. Many American schools also have a zero-tolerance policy, as do many companies and other organizations. Overall, despite the glamour that some people see in the drug, the disadvantages far outweigh the temporary advantages, and rather than improving a person’s life, it can only do the opposite.