When cocaine and heroin were sold normally in the 20th century Spanish press




Although it is well known that many drugs have been used for different reasons since ancient times, it is surprising to observe how certain substances such as cocaine and heroin were advertised in the press well into the 20th century. In fact, until its elimination from the British Pharmacopoeia in 1932, cannabis or hashish was also widely used in medical practice and was advertised in the main newspapers of the world.

In 1907, in the
‘The Impartial’
We found an advertisement for 2 pesetas bottles of heroin, as “the most rational and scientific solution to cure chronic colds, tuberculosis, bronchitis and general weakness.” In 1902, in
‘The Correspondence of Spain’
Cocaine pills were sold to “cure irritations of the mouth and throat, aphonia, bad smell and colds” without anyone putting their hands to their heads or causing the slightest scandal.

These claims diminished over time, as the damage that these substances caused to health was discovered, but on ABC there were still advertisements for “Cocaine in bloom” in December 1944. In this case it was a perfume from the Pradera firm, which at that time usually hired a whole page in the newspaper to promote its flagship product, a “mysterious fragrance that produces unknown sensations,” even though it made reference to one of the drugs whose use was already persecuted.

Cannabis and cocaine

Until that moment, the road regarding the use of drugs within the law was long. Cannabis, for example, was introduced into Western medicine by the Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessey, a professor at the Calcutta Medical College, who published its anticonvulsant properties in 1839. In 1890, Sir John Russell Reynolds, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, published an article in ‘The Lancet’ in which he summarized his thirty years of clinical experience with hashish in the treatment of insomnia, neuralgia, headaches, epilepsy or dysmenorrhea, among others. disorders.

Ad for Bayer Syrup for Heroin
Ad for Bayer Syrup from Heroin – BNE

Cocaine had been marketed as a drug in the United States in 1882, primarily to treat dental pain in children and the treatment of gout in adults. But the true discoverer of its pharmacological properties was the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who began to experiment with it on his own body. He claimed that his consumption had helped him improve his depression, his self-esteem and his ability to concentrate at work. It was he who discovered that his tongue and lips became numb after consuming it, relieving certain pains.

However, the greatest ‘therapeutic’ success of cocaine originated when a multitude of ‘miracle’ elixirs like those advertised in the newspapers were put on the market. One of the most unique and famous was the wine with coca leaf extracts created by Angelo Mariani. In 1863, this chemist and pharmacist founded the first great industry based on this substance and even received a decoration from Pope Leo XIII for his merits in favor of Humanity.


Heroin, meanwhile, was born in an attempt to improve the safety profile of morphine, an opium alkaloid. It was synthesized in 1874 by the chemist Alder Wright, in London, when he treated morphine with organic acids. With it, he was able to reduce blood pressure and respiratory rate, but it did not arouse enough clinical interest. Soon after, Heinrich Dreser, a researcher at the pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer & Co., achieved industrial production and marketed it in 1898 as a cough reliever. He described the drug as a “heroic drug”, hence Bayer dubbed it ‘Heroin’, since until then it was known by its scientific name: diacetylmorphine.

It soon achieved its commercial success, being used almost all over the world as a cough suppressant. Hence its appearance in the press as one more product, until the addictive phenomena associated with the consumption of heroin and cocaine became known in the first decades of the 20th century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 placed the first restrictions on the manufacture of both substances. In 1914 the second was outlawed in the United States by the Harrison Narcotic Control Act. The first suffered the same restriction ten years later.

In the 1920s it was already common to see news in Spanish newspapers with arrests of traffickers of these substances and announcements of prohibitions. How is it from the
‘Gazette of the iron roads’
, in 1924, where it was warned that it was forbidden to send postal packages with “Opium, morphine, cocaine and other narcotics.” “However, this prohibition will not apply to shipments of this kind made for medicinal purposes for those countries that admit them with this condition,” he later clarified.

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