The condition of the principal markets of the world for this drug has recently been exceptionally bad. That is, whether good coca was sought for in the ports of Central and South America, or in London, Hamburg, or New York, the search, even without limitation in price, was almost invariably unsuccessful. Not that the drug, independent of quality, was scarce, for hundreds of bales were accessible at all times; but the quality was so poor as to be quite unfit for use. The samples, instead of being green and fragrant, were brown and odorless, or musty and disagreeable, at once condemning the lots they represented, to the most casual observation, and yet the price was high enough to have represented a good article. The best that could be done by the most careful buyers was to accept occasional parcels, the best of which were of very inferior quality, and therefore unfit for medicinal uses, and these at very high prices. Coca is well known to be a very sensitive and perishable drug, only fit for its somewhat equivocal uses when fresh and green, and well cared for in packing and transportation. Very much like tea in this and other respects, it should be packed and transported with the same care and pains, in leaded chests, or in some equivalent package.
It is very well known that tea, if managed, transported, handled, and sold as coca is, would be nearly or quite worthless, and therefore coca managed as the great mass of it is must be nearly all of it comparatively worthless. If used as tea is, this would probably soon appear; but when used as a medicine which has been highly extolled and well advertised, it seems to go on equally well whether of good or bad quality. It is pretty safe to say that nineteen-twentieths of the coca seen in this market within the past two years must be almost inert and valueless, yet all is sold and used, and its reputation as a therapeutic agent is pretty well kept up. At least many thousands of pounds of the brown ill-smelling leaf, and of preparations made from it, are annually sold. And worse than this, considerable quantities of a handsome looking green leaf, well put up and well taken care of, have been sold and used as coca, when wanting in nearly all its characteristics.
The writer for more than a year past has seen but one or two small lots of moderately good coca, and in common with other buyers has been obliged to buy the best that could be found to keep up his supply of the fluid extract. Almost every purchase has been made on mental protest, and he has been ashamed of every pound of fluid extract sent out, from the knowledge that it was of poor quality; and there seems to be no more prospect of a supply of better quality than there was this time last year, because so long as an inferior quality sells in such enormous quantities at good prices the demands of trade are satisfied.
Under this condition of the markets, the writer has finally decided to give up making a fluid extract of coca, and has left it off his list, adopting a fluid extract of tea instead, as a superior substitute, for those who may choose to use it, and regrets that this course was not taken a year ago.
The character of coca as a therapeutic agent is not very good. The florid stories of a multitude of travelers and writers, up to and including the testimony of Dr. Mantegazza, received a considerable support from so good an authority as Sir Robert Christison, who reported very definite results from trials made upon himself, and upon several students under his immediate control and observation; and his results seem to have led to a very careful and exhaustive series of observations at University College, London, by Mr. Dowdeswell. This paper, published in The Lancet of April 29 and May 6, 1876, pp. 631 and 664, is entitled "The Coca Leaf: Observations on the Properties and Action of the Leaf of the Coca Plant (Erythroxylon coca), made in the Physiological Laboratory of University College, by G.F. Dowdeswell, B.A." The results of these investigations were absolutely negative, and at the close of the work the investigator says: "Without asserting that it is positively inert, it is concluded from these experiments that its action is so slight as to preclude the idea of its having any value either therapeutically or popularly; and it is the belief of the writer, from observation upon the effect on the pulse, etc., of tea, milk and water, and even plain water, hot, tepid, and cold, that such things may, at slightly different temperatures, produce a more decided effect than even large doses of coca, if taken at about the temperature of the body."
Conflicting and contradictory testimony from competent authority is not uncommon in therapeutics, and the reasons for it are well recognized in the impossibility of an equality in the conditions and circumstances of the investigations, and hence the general decision commonly reached is upon the principle of averages.
There can hardly be a reasonable doubt that coca, in common with tea and coffee and other similar articles, has a refreshing, recuperative, and sustaining effect upon human beings, and when well cultivated, well cured, and well preserved, so as to reach its uses of good quality and in good condition, it is at least equal to good tea, and available for important therapeutic uses. Mr. Dowdeswell supposed that he used good coca, but it is very easy to see that with any amount of care and pains he may have been mistaken in this. Had he but used the same parcel of coca that Sir Robert Christison did, the results of the two observers would be absolutely incomprehensible; and the results, in the absence of any testimony on that point, simply prove that the two observers were using a different article, though under the same name, and possibly with the same care in selection. On Sir Robert Christison's side of the question there are many competent observers whose testimony is spread over many years; while on Mr. Dowdeswell's side there are fewer observers.
But there has been no observer on either side whose researches have been anything like so thorough, so extended, or so accurate as those of Mr. Dowdeswell. Indeed, no other account has been met with wherein the modern methods of precision have been applied to the question at all; the other testimony being all rather loose and indefinite, often at second or third hands, or from the narratives of more or less enthusiastic travelers. But if Mr. Dowdeswell's results be accepted as being conclusive, the annual consumption of 40,000,000 pounds of coca at a cost of 10,000,000 dollars promotes this substance to take rank among the large economic blunders of the age.