Cocaine became a popular drug in the 1970s, especially in the nightlife scene. However, long before it was a known drug in the world of the night, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud was already using it frequently.
Sigmund Freud and cocaine
Every time he attended a party, he dressed up in his best clothes and sniffed a few grams “to free his tongue,” as he wrote to his fiancée in a letter sent in 1886. However, what at first seemed like a harmless habit, over time it became an addiction that disturbed the mood and judgment of the Austrian genius.
Cocaine: from South America to Vienna
Freud wrote about his experiences with cocaine in an essay he titled Über coca, but until recently these accounts had been hidden. This twelve-year stage in which the psychoanalyst used cocaine was brilliantly summarized in the book An Anatomy of Addiction (“Anatomy of addiction”), by Howard Markel, teacher of the University of Michigan. In this essay, Sigmund Freud’s relationship with cocaine is narrated. Freud gradually increased his use because he believed that cocaine was something like an elixir of life. Despite the fact that the narrative thread of Markel’s work is the history of drugs, the author reviews in depth the origins of cocaine, which had widespread implantation in Europe and the United States, and was declared illegal many decades later.
Thus, we know that the explorers of South America At the beginning of the 19th century were the ones who took to their countries of origin the coca leaves that caused so much fury among the tribes and indigenous population, who had the habit of chewing them. European and American explorers wanted to discover what were those magical properties that provided immunity from fatigue and hunger to the indigenous people. Chemistry experts from many parts of the globe inspected and examined the plant until, in the year 1860, they managed to detect and isolate the cocaine alkaloid, responsible for the stimulation of the nervous system that, apparently, conferred these advantages.
Could cocaine be therapeutic?
At that time, Freud decided to devote his efforts to the study of therapeutic uses of cocaine, with the aim of increasing its prestige among the Viennese scientific community. Previous experiments had mistakenly shown that cocaine could cure addiction to morphine (widely used at the time to relieve pain at home).
On this theoretical basis, Freud began to treat a patient suffering from chronic pain with a stimulant. Later, it was he himself who decided to try cocaine. Freud realized that he had remarkable effectiveness in avoiding anxiety and increasing libido. Before long, Freud’s sympathy with cocaine was total, and he used to prescribe it to family and friends, as usual, to “turn bad days into good ones, and good days into better ones.”
Freud was convinced that his experimentations with cocaine would lead to a revolution in the world of mental health and that this would catapult him to fame. “Whatever the reason, to calm a headache, abdominal pain, sinusitis or a nostalgic mood, Freud used cocaine to alleviate the discomfort,” reveals Markel. No one was aware of the risks of white powder. Anyone could buy cocaine in pharmacies without any type of control or medical prescription, and merchants benefited from the boom of the substance to make it the essential component of a myriad of ointments, juices, cigarettes, and even food products, such as some kinds of margarine.
Coca-Cola, Mariani Wine and other uses of cocaine
It is true that, before the great drug lords and cartels arose, the Italian-French chemist Angelo Mariani made a huge fortune thanks to a mixture of coca leaf extracts and Bordeaux wine. The Mariani wine, as it was baptized, had a tremendous impact to the point of being, for many years, the favorite drink of great personalities such as Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Alexander Dumas, and Pope Leo XIII.
Its ability to “invigorate the body and mind”, as proclaimed in the press advertisements of the time, was able to attract the curiosity of John Syth Pemberton, an American war veteran addicted to morphine use. Pemberton, who resided in Atlanta, patented a tonic similar to that of Mariani that he christened Coca wine French. This product evolved and went from an alcoholic to a non-alcoholic drink after the Dry Law in the state of Georgia, becoming called Coca Cola.
Awareness of the dangers of drugs
It would still take many years for science to understand the catastrophic consequences of abuse in cocaine use. Freud stopped taking it in 1896, at the age of 40. He began to experience tachycardia and noticed how his intellectual performance declined considerably. The alkaloid itself of cocaine was the cause of the premature death of his friend and could have caused the death of several of his patients.
Freud, for a few years, became such a regular consumer that his nose was often red and wet. To break the bad habit of consumption, he tried to keep busy as long as possible: he got up at six in the morning, consulted twelve patients, and read and wrote until well after midnight.
Freud managed to rehabilitate himself and completely gave up his addiction. Nevertheless, William Halsted, who was one of the pioneers of modern surgery, he could never get off the hook from cocaine use. After studying Freud’s texts on the substance, he set out to investigate whether he could use it as a local anesthetic, thus replacing ether and chloroform. To that end, he made himself a guinea pig, but within a few weeks, the first effects began to bloom.
Unable to concentrate during consultations, he stopped going to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he had just been appointed chief of surgery. On one occasion, Halsted had to leave the operating room in the middle of surgery because the effects of cocaine did not even allow him to hold the surgical instruments. He finally agreed to go into a hospital, but he never recovered from the psychic sequelae caused by the drug, and he also developed a dependence on morphine.
At the beginning of the 20th century, addicts to the cocaine alkaloid were many, and most managed to stay in the shade thanks to its supposed invigorating properties. “It was not easy to lead a double life, being a renowned doctor in the public sphere and, simultaneously, a cocaine user, a drug addict,” explains Markel.
The Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle was one of these prominent addicts, and although he never revealed his relationship with cocaine, he left a mark of his habit in many of his works. Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s most iconic character and who was considered his alter ego, had a habit of injecting himself with a cocaine preparation when he had no intriguing cases to investigate. His fearless friend, the doctor watsonHe was concerned about Sherlock’s use and tried to persuade him to stop injecting cocaine.
Cocaine: social stigma and abandonment of consumption
Over time the drug was stigmatized and governments increased control over its distribution and consumption. Decades after the rise of Freudian work, the psychoanalyst had to face countless criticisms for the habit he acquired when he was just taking his first steps as a researcher and therapist. The controversy over the degree of influence of white powder on Freud’s work can never be resolved, but most researchers agree that its brightest period came after quitting.
Freud himself recognized in the last years of his life, perhaps as a way to exonerate his past, “my research on cocaine was a distraction that kept me anxious to conclude.”