History of Cocaine - Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood

Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)

Chapter 4. History of Cocaine

To understand how Pablo flourished as a trafficker, it’s necessary to look at the history of cocaine. For thousands of years, the indigenous people of South America have chewed coca leaves, just like the British enjoy drinking tea. A coca leaf in the mouth combined with a small amount of an alkaline substance is sucked for up to forty-five minutes. The stimulant effect is similar to a boost of energy from coffee. Ancient Andean tribes cherished the coca leaf as a gift from the gods, reserving its use for royalty and high priests. Over time, the masses discovered that it helped them to suppress appetite, increase stamina and overcome altitude fatigue in the Andes Mountains. It was thought to cure everything from stomach complaints to snow blindness. The Incas used it as an anaesthetic for primitive brain surgery performed on injured warriors.

In the nineteenth century, European chemists focussed on coca leaves in the hope of developing new drugs. Using leaves imported to Germany, Albert Niemann extracted the primary alkaloid in 1859 and named the crystalline substance cocaine. Having stripped the leaf of its moderating substances, he’d unwittingly unleashed an addictive drug.

In 1863, cocaine made its way to America as an anonymous ingredient in Vin Mariani, a tonic wine named after the Corsican chemist behind the concoction. It consisted of ground-up coca leaves with red Bordeaux wine, at the rate of six milligrams of coca per ounce of wine. The label claimed it, “Fortifies Strengthens Stimulates & Refreshes the Body & Brain. Hastens Convalescence especially after Influenza.” The recommended dose was two to three glassfuls per day, taken before or after meals, and half of that for children.

Helped along by Vin Mariani’s advertising genius, the wine became a worldwide sensation. He had 3,000 physicians endorse it, and countless monarchs, politicians, actors, writers and religious leaders, including Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola and President William McKinley. It was said that Pope Leo XIII never left the Vatican without a flask of Vin Mariani under his robes, and that he’d awarded Vin Mariani a gold medal. When Ulysses Grant was dying from throat cancer, struggling to write his memoirs, Mark Twain sent him Vin Mariani, which revived him sufficiently for him to pick up his fountain pen.

An American pharmacist, John Pemberton, made a non-alcoholic health drink, a mineral-water beverage laced with cocaine, which softened his morphine addiction. It became so popular that Pemberton received an offer of $2,300 from Asa Candler for the rights and recipe. Thirty-eight years later, Candler’s $2,300 investment was worth $50 million. The name of the health drink was Coca-Cola. It was advertised as a tonic that gave you energy and cured headaches. People would enter a drugstore, sit on a high stool, hand over a couple of pennies and receive a glass of Coca-Cola. Popular amongst members of the temperance movement, it pepped them up to protest against alcohol.

Viewed as a miracle cure, cocaine was widely adopted in self-administered medicines. The Hay Fever Association latched onto cocaine because it constricted blood vessels. Many asthma preparations contained coca or cocaine. By 1890, it was everywhere, with quacks claiming it cured everything from impotence to baldness and dandruff. As it boosted work performance, it was used by all sections of society, ranging from baseball players to dockworkers. White business owners doled it out to black employees, to squeeze more work out of them. An anti-opium crusader, Dr Hamilton Wright, advocated its distribution to black dockworkers and labourers to increase their productivity. In literature, it was heralded by Sherlock Holmes, who eagerly injected it every day, as described in The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long white fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his shirt cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

“Which is it today,” I asked, “morphine or cocaine?”

He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

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

Cocaine was used to treat Civil War veterans addicted to morphine and alcohol. This did not go unnoticed by an Austrian neurologist called Sigmund Freud.

Born in 1856 in the Moravian town of Příbor - now a historic town in the Czech Republic - Freud developed an unnatural interest in reading at an early age. He stacked his bedroom with books, where he remained cloistered even during mealtimes. In 1873, he joined the medical faculty at the University of Vienna, where his studies included physiology, philosophy and zoology. He dissected hundreds of male eels in a quest to find their genitals. In 1882, he started work at the Vienna General Hospital, where his research included cerebral anatomy. He also fell in love with Martha, a petite and intelligent friend of his sisters. Two months later they were engaged. Her family responded by sending her to live near Hamburg. On April 21, 1884, Freud wrote to Martha:

I have been reading about cocaine, the essential constituent of coca leaves which some Indian tribes chew to enable them to resist privations and hardships. A German has been employing it with soldiers and has reported that it increases their energy and capacity to endure. I am procuring some myself and will try it with cases of heart disease and also of nervous exhaustion, particularly in the miserable condition after the withdrawal of morphium… Perhaps others are working at it; perhaps nothing will come of it. But I shall certainly try it, and you know that when one perseveres, sooner or later one succeeds. We do not need more than one such lucky hit to be able to think of setting up house. But don’t be too sure that it must succeed this time. You know, the temperament of an investigator needs two fundamental qualities: he must be sanguine in the attempt, and critical in the work.

Hoping to make a breakthrough in medicine to generate the resources to marry Martha, Freud purchased a gram of cocaine from a pharmacy, supplied by Merck of Germany. He tried one twentieth himself. With his mood elevated and appetite suppressed, he wondered about its application for depression and stomach problems. His enthusiasm for cocaine increased after it provided relief for a patient suffering from gastritis. Freud ordered more, which he shared with his friends, associates and Martha, “to make her strong and give her cheeks a red colour.” Using it throughout the day, he documented its effects, including his shifts in emotion, body temperature and muscular strength. Pining for Martha, who he hadn’t seen in over a year, Freud experienced depression, which he increasingly self-medicated with cocaine. High on the substance, he wrote to Martha in the summer of 1884:

Woe to you, my princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big strong man with cocaine in his body. In my last serious depression I took cocaine again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.

The first medical article Freud published was “Über Coca” in 1885, which lauded the use of cocaine in depression and morphine addiction, while also commenting on its anaesthetic qualities. Pleased with his progress, Freud took time off to visit Martha. When he returned in September, cocaine was causing a stir, but not because of his paper. Karl Koller, a colleague Freud had conducted experiments with, had made a breakthrough with cocaine and become an instant celebrity. He’d developed it as a local anaesthetic for eye surgery. Although Freud had touched on cocaine’s anaesthetic properties, Koller had identified its tissue-numbing capabilities. As it would have enabled him to marry Martha, Freud envied Koller’s success. In later life, he claimed that it was Martha’s fault that he was not already famous at an early age.

While Koller was at his house, Freud received a visit from his father, who had an eye complaint. After diagnosing glaucoma, they operated on him the next day, using cocaine as an anaesthetic. His father’s eyesight was saved. The medical community scrambled to use it as an anaesthetic in a variety of procedures ranging from tooth extraction to haemorrhoid surgery. It was soon heralded as a cure for hay fever, asthma, opium and morphine addiction and for every complaint imaginable ranging from ingrowing toenails to nymphomania. It was sold in lozenges, cigarettes, cough medicines and cold cures. Bars offered shots of whiskey with cocaine. In America, its price jumped from $2.50 to $13 a gram. The lead producer, Merck, ramped-up production from fifty grams in 1879 to thirty kilos in 1885.

Even though medical professionals had certified cocaine as being completely safe, by 1885, its side-effects were becoming apparent, especially among those who’d used it first: physicians, chemists, pharmacists, doctors, dentists and their wives, some of whom ended up in the madhouse.

To a friend, Freud had recommended cocaine for morphine addiction. The friend ended up hooked on cocaine and morphine. Freud spent “the most frightful night” of his life babysitting his friend, who, suffering from cocaine psychosis, kept picking at imaginary insects and snakes crawling beneath his skin.

It was determined that cocaine did not cure morphine addiction. It just substituted one addiction for another and sometimes left people addicted to both. One doctor predicted it would be the third great scourge of the human race after alcohol and opium. A Russian doctor gave twenty-three grains of cocaine to a girl he was about to operate on. She died and he committed suicide. Perhaps the last straw for Freud occurred when he fatally overdosed a patient on it.

Dr Albrecht Hirschmüller of the University of Tübingen traced Freud’s error back to work Freud had originally read concerning cocaine’s use for morphine addiction in a journal called the Therapeutic Gazette, which Freud had discovered in the index catalogue of the Surgeon General’s Office. Seven papers he had quoted in “Über Coca” were from the Therapeutic Gazette, which, unknown to Freud, was owned by the Parke, Davis pharmaceutical company of Detroit, the American manufacturer of cocaine. It was an early instance of Big Pharma co-opting a doctor: Freud had accepted $24 from Park, Davis to vouch for their cocaine, which he had claimed was as good as Merck’s.

Flak rained down on Freud for his claims in “Über Coca.” Even though he’d finally managed to marry Martha in 1886, Freud described 1887 as “the least successful and darkest year” of his life. He never published any more papers on cocaine. He buried the theories and went on to found psychoanalysis. With the zeal of enemy combatants, researchers still argue over whether cocaine gave Freud the inspiration and vivid dreams that contributed to the development of his later theories.

Although most of its supposed medical benefits were debunked, cocaine use in America climbed as people became addicted to patent medicines. But that was all about to stop, at least for black people.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, agricultural depression and labour struggles increased tension among the whites, some of whom channelled their discontent into the despicable act of lynching black people. Gangs of vigilantes grabbed innocent blacks and hung them from the nearest tree. When the blacks dared to fight back, the whites got it into their heads that the number one cause of such retaliation was cocaine.

For decades, the whites had felt threatened by the customs of the blacks. After the Civil War, the blacks in southern states were banned from drinking alcohol on the grounds that when intoxicated they became dangerous to whites. The majority of politicians believed that the whites were able to behave themselves while intoxicated, whereas black people lacked such restraint.

In 1901, Henry Cabot Lodge spearheaded a law that banned the sale of liquor and opiates to “uncivilized races,” including blacks, aborigines, Eskimos, Hawaiians and immigrant railroad workers. Cocaine dodged inclusion until a decade later when headlines courtesy of William Randolph Hearst reported on the new southern menace: cocaine. The same reasoning that had outlawed alcohol and opium to black people now spread to cocaine.

Thus was born the myth of the cocaine-crazed Negro with superhuman strength who you could shoot, but wouldn’t die. One newspaper stated, “In attempting to arrest a hitherto peaceful negro who had become crazed by cocaine, a police officer in self-defence drew his revolver, placed the muzzle over the negro’s heart, and fired. And yet, this bullet did not even stagger the crazed negro, and neither did a second.”

The police were so spooked that they demanded higher-calibre bullets to shoot blacks under the influence of cocaine because anything less would be repelled by their superhuman strength. Calibres .25 and .32 were replaced by .38, which decades later were replaced by Glocks when the Reagan-Bush administration propagandised black crack use to terrify the nation into tightening drug laws, and to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to hunt down Pablo Escobar.

In the early 1900s, according to politicians and the tabloids, cocaine not only made blacks bullet-proof, but it also turned them into something much worse: sexual deviants out to rape every white woman in sight. As with opium smoking in San Francisco fifty years earlier, the idea that a drug was being used to seduce white women was the final straw. Southern states banned cocaine, but illegality did not stymie its availability. The first cocaine dealers were newspaper boys and shoe-shiners offering a sniff of powder for ten cents or a day’s supply in a pillbox for twenty-five cents. Cocaine prohibition created a black market that would grow exponentially around the time of Pablo Escobar.

These first drug laws were enacted at the local level. There were no federal laws. While local laws prohibited cocaine from the uncivilised races, the whites still devoured cocaine-based medicines. It was considered legitimate to take a drug if you were sick, but a no-no if you were feeling good. With cocaine tonics having been around for four decades, most addiction was medicine-based. By 1900, it was estimated that five percent of the American public was addicted to cocaine-based drugs. Hardest hit were middle-class white women living in rural areas.

While making grandiose advertising claims, patent-medicine manufacturers refused to label their ingredients, so men, women and children were unknowingly dosing themselves on cocaine. An article in Collier’s magazine by Samuel Hopkins Adams caught the attention of Congress. It commenced with:

GULLIBLE America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skilfulest of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines and the medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisement, the patent medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble, and the nation would be the richer not only in lives and money, but in drunkards and drug-fiends saved.

Adams’ exposé included false advertising claims and stories of addiction, abuse and death caused by patent medicines. It motivated Congress to pass the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which required habit-forming medications to be labelled with the contents. It didn’t ban drugs. Cocaine, heroin, morphine, opium and marijuana were legal and readily available. But it put most patent medicines out of business. Even Coca-Cola dropped the hard stuff, though it retained the name.

Research by Professor Paul Gootenberg revealed the more sinister role of corporate interests. Making cocaine illegal eliminated the competition for the two producers in America: Merck and Maywood. Before shipping to Coca-Cola, Maywood removed the cocaine from its coca to minimise the risk of Coca-Cola staining its wholesome image. Coca-Cola and Maywood kept the drug czar, Harry Anslinger - a racist who believed that marijuana and jazz music were the work of the devil - informed about events in Peru, where their plantations grew, and in return, he protected Coca-Cola by putting loopholes in international legislation that allowed Coca-Cola the right to import leaves. The wrath of Anslinger would come down on any potential competitors to Coca-Cola, who wanted to import leaves, guaranteeing Coca-Cola’s monopoly. If the Peruvian government didn’t keep its prices down, Anslinger threatened that Coca-Cola would take their business to Bolivia. Anslinger and Coca-Cola were always on the lookout for the results of any new studies on the coca plant. If it were declared safe, Anslinger would have difficulty maintaining his ban on importation, and the Coca-Cola monopoly would be eliminated by copycats. At the same time, Coca-Cola didn’t want coca to be deemed too dangerous because minus its cocaine, it was still a main ingredient, which carried a constant risk of a scandal erupting. Outside of helping Coca-Cola, Peru was discouraged from producing coca, which, according to Gootenberg, boosted the black market, which fed the rise in demand for cocaine from the 1960s onwards. With no legal outlet for coca due to United Nations laws put forward by Anslinger, the Peruvian farmers exported coca paste to traffickers - Pablo Escobar’s progenitors - or as Gootenberg put it, “There was a continual rise in cocaine production throughout Peru in the 1950s and 60s. The United States created the cocaine problem itself.”

When the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was proposed, southern legislators seized upon the opportunity to include cocaine. They backed up their demand with stories about black men murdering and raping entire families. Now not only did cocaine give black men superhuman strength, but it also improved their pistol aim. This federal law was passed in 1914. It included cocaine, opium, morphine and heroin. It required anyone handling those drugs - doctors, druggists, pharmacists, distributors, importers - to pay an annual tax, to keep strict records, and to prescribe it only “in the due course of medical treatment.” Except for licensed handlers, possession of cocaine was illegal. Over-the-counter medicines were not allowed a scintilla of cocaine, bankrupting the producers of patent medicines who had survived the 1906 Food and Drug Act.

In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled that addiction was not a disease, preventing doctors from prescribing drugs for addicts, criminalising addicts and causing the closure of drug-maintenance clinics. By 1928, one-third of the federal prison population was made up of violators of the Harrison Act, including numerous doctors. To avoid prison, addicts switched from cocaine to drugs outside of the Harrison Act such as amphetamines, which, just like cocaine decades earlier, were being touted as completely safe wonder drugs. Methamphetamines were sold in patent medicines and nasal decongestants, recommended for heroin addiction, and disseminated to troops to improve their performance. The police and prohibitionists hailed the drop in cocaine use as a success, demanded even more severe punishments and cited the large number of addicts in prison as proof that drugs made people commit crimes; after all only criminals ended up in jail. With cocaine users scarce in the face of an expanding anti-drugs bureaucracy, the authorities moved onto potheads, where their focus remained for decades, which allowed Pablo to get cocaine into America unnoticed.

In the following decades, the most famous cocaine abuser was Adolf Hitler. After a failed assassination attempt, he was treated by Dr Erwin Giesing, who prescribed cocaine in ten percent solutions for Hitler’s sore throat. After his throat was cured, Hitler demanded more cocaine from his reluctant doctor. Towards the end of the war, Hitler was receiving multiple injections a day of drug cocktails and popping pep tablets such as Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth. Unable to sleep on Pervitin, he took sedatives.

As Hitler intensified his evil treatment of the Jews, Freud escaped to London in 1938, but four of his sisters were killed in concentration camps. In September 1939, in agony with mouth cancer from smoking, Freud was given enough morphine to end his life. With his decision-making processes scrambled by drugs, Hitler shot himself in the head in 1945 to avoid capture by the Russians.

Making cocaine illegal created a black market that would remain small at first and wither during the Great Depression and World Wars, only to accelerate in the latter half of the century to generate enough mayhem to make the authors of the early drug laws squirm in their graves, including hundreds of thousands of murders in Colombia and Mexico as rival cartels fought for control. It was a market that would rain dollars down on exporters of coca paste in Peru and Bolivia and generate even bigger profits for their customers in Colombia such as Pablo.

Prior to 1973, Chile was a centre of cocaine production. Using Peruvian coca leaves and paste, refiners made cocaine in Chilean labs, which was shipped to wealthy US customers. The refiners often hired Colombian smugglers, which is how the Colombians learned the early routes.

As shown in Narcos, the good times for the Chilean producers ended abruptly due to regime change. As General Pinochet was a sworn enemy of Communism, the CIA backed his coup in 1973. Once in power, he had the army execute thousands of his own citizens, including traffickers. He shut down dozens of cocaine labs and arrested hundreds of people associated with trafficking. This wasn’t to stop the cocaine business. It was a takeover.

Narcos left out that Pinochet and his son organised a production and distribution network, which supplied Europe and America. Pinochet had the army build a lab in Talagante, a rural town twenty-four miles from Santiago. Chemists mixed cocaine with other chemicals to make black cocaine, which could be smuggled more easily than the obvious white stuff - a trick that Pablo would employ. Pinochet earned millions from cocaine production.

In Colombia, three cities set about competing for cocaine business: Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. On November 22, 1975, a plane was busted in Cali with 600 kilos on board. This sparked a cocaine war. In one weekend, over forty people were murdered. But not in Cali. They’d died in the city dominating the cocaine business: Medellín. The authorities started to watch the slum neighbourhoods, where young people armed to the teeth hustled to stay alive and dreamt of raising themselves out of the barrio through fast cash from cocaine.

Pablo had started in the cocaine business a hundred years after the previous boom in American use, when it had been touted as a cure-all by pharmacists and was an original ingredient in Coca-Cola. The scourge of what followed - addiction, insanity, deaths - had long been forgotten. Cocaine was not a problem in America because it was consumed discreetly by the upper class. The rest of society was receptive to this cool new drug that they were told they couldn’t get addicted to. Even the DEA issued a report that stated, “it is not physically addictive… and does not usually result in serious consequences, such as crime, hospital emergency room admissions or both.” There was talk of decriminalising it. Pablo compared the illegality of cocaine to the prohibition of alcohol in America, from which the Kennedy family had prospered. Through the legalisation of cocaine, Pablo hoped that his business would be legitimised, and his story would become a legend similar to that of the Kennedys.

The black market in cocaine became so big that the US government viewed it as a threat to national security. Post-World War II, the priority of the US government was fighting Communism. Policymakers feared that Communist movements in South America would use cocaine proceeds to obtain arms, topple right-wing dictators favourable to US corporate interests and end up threatening to invade America. Rather than let that happen, the US government through the CIA encouraged right-wingers such as General Pinochet to use cocaine proceeds to arm themselves - with weapons manufactured in America, of course - against Communists, which often resulted in CIA-trained death squads assassinating student protesters, schoolteachers and labourers for the crime of demanding pay rises and better working conditions. Drug laws and the DEA were used to wipe out the cocaine competition, i.e. anyone not working with the CIA. When honest DEA agents tried to indict cocaine kingpins who were contributing to the US anti-Communism crusade, the CIA stepped in and blocked the indictments in the name of national security.

One DEA whistle-blower, deep undercover agent Mike Levine, was prevented from arresting the big fish so many times that he classified the CIA as the world’s biggest Mafia. Mike and many other insiders discovered that the CIA-approved traffickers were sending their cocaine to America on planes provided by the CIA - the CIA even had two airlines for this purpose: Air America and Southern Air Transport. On the return journeys, these planes supplied arms to groups fighting Communism. While attempting to justify this trafficking in cocaine as an act of patriotism, big money was being made by pilots, politicians and weapons manufacturers. It also put the American government in the odd situation of simultaneously fighting a War on Drugs, while facilitating their importation.

The Mafia is all about money flowing to the top. If Mike Levine was correct about the CIA being the biggest Mafia, then lesser Mafias would have to pay the CIA to play. There is evidence to suggest that Pablo and his associates made such payments to the CIA. Milian Rodriguez, a money manager for the Medellín Cartel, testified that from 1982 to 1985, he funnelled nearly $10 million to Nicaraguan rebels through former CIA operative, Felix Rodriguez, a friend of George HW Bush. The Nicaraguan rebels were a pet project of the Reagan-Bush administration. After Congress cut funding off and banned the provision of arms to the Nicaraguan rebels, the Reagan-Bush administration continued to provide arms illegally through the CIA. Cocaine worth billions was imported on the return journeys, some of which sparked the crack epidemic - as exposed by the journalist Gary Webb, who was demonised and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head - twice.

When asked whether the CIA knew the source of the money, Milian Rodriguez said, “But the men who made the contact with me did. I was under indictment at the time. But a tremendous patriot like Felix Rodriguez, all of a sudden he finds his troops are running out of money, for food, for medicine, for supplies. I think for Felix it was something he did out of desperation. He was willing to get it from any source to continue his war… The cartel figured it was buying a little friendship. What the hell is ten million bucks? They thought they were going to buy some good will and take a little heat off of them… They figured [that] maybe the CIA or DEA will not screw around so much.”

In return for paying off the CIA, numerous investigations into the Medellín Cartel were squashed in the early 1980s and Pablo had access to America weapons, including the MAC 10, much favoured by his hit men. With cocaine becoming the world’s most profitable drug, the Medellín Cartel was able to generate annual sales in the billions. The CIA has a history of arming and putting people in power, only to wipe them out later on when it suits its interest. Pablo would be no exception.