Irresistible rise of Colombian marching powder

COKE, Charlie, Blow, the Devil’s Dandruff, Flake, Angie, Line, Base, C, Toot, Snow . . . few drugs go under so many names, or seem so suited to the stressful lifestyle of the 21st century — both a stimulant, and an appetite suppressant . . . and very quick to administer.

Yet coca has been known for thousands of years, and came to the attention of Europe following the conquest of South America by the conquistadores who recognised the plant’s medicinal qualities to such an extent they legalised and taxed the leaf at a value of 10% of each crop. Those revenues went to support the expansion of the Catholic church in Latin America.

For centuries it remained a mystery (coca does not grow in Europe and the leaf ruins during transport) but by the middle of the 19th century sufficient quantities had been shipped to excite the interest of scientists and doctors.

“It is cocaine,” he said, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”

Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, by Arthur Conan-Doyle, 1890

In 1863 a chemist marketed a wine called Vin Mariani which was treated with coca leaves, establishing for the first time the potent combination of alcohol and cocaine. So successful was it that he was awarded a Vatican gold medal.

Across the Atlantic a “pinch” of coca leaf was included in the original recipe for Coca Cola, and remained there until 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Cocaine was sold in powder and cigarette form, and there was even a cocaine mixture which could be injected directly into the user’s veins (needle included). It could be purchased along the Mississippi River. Antarctic explorers Scott and Shackleton included “Forced March” cocaine tablets in their supply as they struck out for the Pole. The drug was also used as a local anaesthetic in eye, nasal and dental surgery, and still is in some countries.

However, a moral panic began to spread about cocaine’s impact with the American Journal of Pharmacy declaring it was the drug of choice for “bohemians, gamblers, high — and low — class prostitutes, night porters, bell boys, burglars, racketeers, pimps and casual labourers”. Even more than a century ago the drug’s ability to cross social class was well recognised. By 1914 its sale had been outlawed in the United States.

Some get a kick from cocaine. I’m sure that if I took even one sniff. That would bore me terrifically, too. Yet, I get a kick out of you

Original lyric by Cole Porter, 1934

Despite the legislation authorities remained relaxed about its use and prosecutions were rare. It was recognised for its ability to stave off fatigue and became increasingly popular among students and the music industry.

But in 1970 America became suddenly tougher when the drug was included in the Controlled Substances Act. Prohibition, far from controlling the drug, has coincided with a massive expansion in its use in line with the increasingly self-indulgent lifestyles of the West. While the United States consumes 50% of the world’s cocaine, both Spain and Britain are also major users despite the fact the street price for the drug can be three or four times higher.

If you wanna hang out you’ve got to take her out; cocaine.If you wanna get down, down on the ground; cocaine. She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie; cocaine.

Lyrics by JJ Cale, 1975

The most popular form of taking powdered cocaine is “insufflation” — using rolled-up banknotes, straws, hollowed-out pens, long fingernails, specially designed spoons, and even tampon applicators. The drug is poured onto a flat surface and divided into “bumps“, “lines” or “rails” and snorted.

Cocaine users rarely inject; in fact the lack of the paraphernalia associated with injecting serious drugs such as heroin is a principal factor in coke’s popularity. Where cocaine is injected it is frequently combined with heroin to form the infamous “speedball”. It was this cocktail of drugs which killed, among many others, the comedian John Belushi and actor River Phoenix.

Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy: Why’d you shoot Mike-Mike in his, um, hind parts, Mr Little?

Omar Little: Let’s say we had a disagreement.

Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy: A disagreement over?

Omar Little: Well, you see, Mike-Mike thought he should keep that cocaine he was slingin’ and the money he was makin’ from slingin’ it. I thought otherwise.

The Wire, 2008

The secret of cocaine’s “success“, apart from the easy availability of the drug, is its effect on the chemistry of the body, increasing the levels of dopamine and serotonin and stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain. This makes it particularly attractive as a “party” drug in tune with the hedonistic lifestyle which has arisen through the greater affluence of the past 25 years.

But the phenomenal growth in its market has also seen immense wealth for drug cartels whose turnover is the equivalent, or greater, than many trans-global corporations.

“I am trying to think of drawbacks to cocaine. I get sweaty. But I drive better, I park better, I chat better, I feel better and I make love better.”

Cocaine user, aged 28

Of all the drugs cocaine can give the most instantaneous high, but is then followed by feelings of depression known as a “crash“, leading the user to increase their intake.

As cocaine use becomes more chronic the crash is accompanied by muscle spasms, headaches, and increased suicidal depression.

Cocaine use greatly increases the rate of heart attack (six times higher for users than non-users). During the hour after cocaine is taken heart attack risk rises 24-fold. The drug causes acute respiratory and pulmonary problems and lung trauma exemplified by the recent warnings about the lifespan of Amy Winehouse due to her use of crack cocaine.

The most notorious physical manifestation is cocaine’s ability to degrade and ultimately destroy the cartilage separating the nostrils, dramatically brought to public attention by the case of EastEnders actress Daniella Westbrook five years ago.

Don’t mess with that cocaine shit. It will ruin everything . . . your life, your mind, your family . . . and everyone in between. It will take everything from you, I mean everything. I have been there, done that. I have been clean from that crap for 7 years, and never want to look back. Just stay away from that satanic dust. Please take my advice. Also, It’s not fun looking at serious time. Good luck :)

Bulletin board message from a former user

More in this section