Monday, July 29, 2013

Aspirin, cocaine, heroin: the history of feeling better

At the io9 website, Esther Inglis-Arkell writes a quick overview of the nineteenth-century opiate craze, When Opium Was For Newborns And Bayer Sold Heroin. The discovery of new and stronger pain-killers was a development of British and American medicine, the big pharma of its day  (Bayer & Co., in Germany,  marketed the new painkilling compound,  heroin). 

Regulation at the time -- as the current class of laissez-faire proponents and Ron Paul supporters would like to overlook, or even address -- was practically non-existent. This led to an easy availability of patent medicines, from laudinum (opium & alcohol) to Coca-Cola (which original formula included coca leaves and was marketed as a quick-acting, pick-me-up refreshment).

By the 1970s the cultural view had shifted to the point of Nixon's call for a war on drugs, although this seems now, as then, a political manuevering that intended to garner more votes than actual results. How much money has been spent on the American battle against "drugs" (both in legal and illegal intent) will never be calculated properly. Senior citizens crossing the Canadian border for cheaper prescription drugs? Arrest them on the bus. 

The current tussle over the Affordable Care Act is simply a battle to decide who gets the money, and how much. At last count, Republicans in the Senate have said "nope, that's still not enough money for us" 39 times in their drive to "stop" Obamacare. 

Yet the successive anti-drug campaigns create more problems than they were ever meant to solve, and result in more addicts than arrests. In 2013 the solution is farther away than ever, and with one political party obsessed with simply getting Obama out of office, any intelligent approach to drug regulation is not going to be an issue on either side.

Here, then, is an except from the golden age of deregulation which politicians would rather Americans never learn about.

There was a time when mothers gave their babies opium, people bought hallucinogens at the local bar, and anxious patriots sent hypodermic needles and cocaine to soldiers as a present. It was called The Great Binge, and it's probably wrong to feel sad that it's over.

Today we have Bayer Aspirin. It relieves headaches. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they had Bayer Heroin.

It was most often a cough syrup, though it probably took care of headaches as well. Heroin was not a slang term developed for a drug, but an actual brand name claimed by the drug company. (They have since allowed their proprietary claim on the name to lapse.) This, and many other drugs were used for everyday maladies like dry throats, menstrual cramps, and babies who cried too long. The period between 1870 and 1918 was called The Great Binge — and people shoved everything into their bodies that they could.

Heroin, believe it or not, was hailed as a wonder substance for its ability to wean addicts off their drug of choice. It was developed by Bayer, when Bayer was primarily called Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken, as a way of treating pain without exposing people to that terribly addictive drug known as morphine. The painkiller was a scourge of the land, turning wounded soldiers into addicts. Bayer & Co. was trying to synthesize, from morphine, the less addictive codeine, and they stumbled on heroin.

Heroin was used for many things, such as cough drops and as a painkiller for menstrual cramps and migraines. And it was used to "cure" addiction to morphine. This non-addictive painkiller was meant to quell the pain of withdrawal from morphine and help morphine addicts kick the habit.

Heroin, outside the body, was unquestionably different than morphine. Unfortunately, when heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier, the body metabolizes it to morphine. In fact, heroin gets into the brain quicker, thanks to its particular solubility, than morphine itself. The company had just worked out a way for someone to get a high faster.

... Opium was also used as a treatment for asthma. Asthma was considered a "seizure" disorder, located mainly in the muscles. Opium was thought to relax the muscles constricting the tubes in the lungs, and allow the sufferer to breathe more easily. All kinds of opium tinctures and vapors were devised to help poor asthmatics. Possibly the stuff worked by drugging them so much that they couldn't participate in any activity that might cause an attack. ...

But even if opium was given to children, it at least wasn't endorsed by the Pope. Cocaine, it seemed, was the preferred drug of religious leaders everywhere, and it started with Angelo Mariani in 1863. The vintner decided to do something to spice up his wine, looked around for something to really add a kick, and settled on coca leaves. The coca leaves transferred benzoylecgonine and ecgonine methyl ester to the alcohol in the wine, and the three combine to form a powerful psychoactive drug.

Vin Mariani was so popular that it earned a place on the person of two different Popes. Pope Leo VIII and Pope Saint Pius X both carried hip flasks of the wine, and Pope Leo awarded Mariani a Vatican gold medal, something the advertisements for Vin Mariani regularly stressed. The wine became the inspiration for using coca leaves in coca cola. Many energizing beverages with coca leaves were sold. One tonic advised customers to drink a glass after each meal. Children were to drink half a glass.

The Pope's use of coca wine became the inspiration for other religious leaders. Cocaine drops were sold regularly for those who had to do public speaking. Supposedly it was meant to give speakers a smooth and rich speaking voice, but its special ability as an "invigorator" featured prominently in most advertisements. Preachers, with their need to give animated and prolonged sermons, and especially stump preachers that traveled around, were frequent users of these lozenges. Stage actors, singers, and teachers took them as well. ...

Shy as they might be about acknowledging the money of American corporate giants during the continuing assault on the Affordable Care Act, the drug industry (and Republican politicians) will support the confusing status quo. It's a sad statement that the richest nation on earth would rather argue dismantling universal health care than construct a successful economy, but that's American politics in the 21st century. Pass that cocaine lozenge.

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