Freud, Sigmund  Cocaine

Freud on Coke

by David Cohen


By David Cohen

Before he’d thought up putting patients on the couch and interpreting their dreams, the young Sigmund Freud did a whole lot of coke.  Desperate to make his reputation as a doctor quickly, and to raise the cash to marry his fiancée, Martha, Freud read – and swallowed without question – astonishing claims made by an American pharmaceutical company, Parker Davis, on behalf of their new ‘wonder drug’, cocaine hydrochloride.  Proposed as a cure for ailments ranging from gastric catarrh to female nymphomania, cocaine was, at the time, thought to be harmless, and Freud ordered his first gram, hoping to find a medicinal use for the drug that would be hailed as a great discovery...and thus deliver Martha to his bed.

Prone to depression, deeply obsessive, sexually repressed and unhappy, Freud took his cocaine...and took some more. And, in the manner of oh-so-many 20th century writers, rock stars, estate agents, sex workers, Colombian serial killers and at least the current President of the United States, he took some more again. He gave some to Martha: he gave it to friends as a cure for indigestion. He tried it on patients with headaches, on practitioners of masturbation, on every depressive who came his way. Funnily enough, they all kept coming back for more.

Convinced of its therapeutic benefits, and blissfully ignorant of his growing dependency, Freud managed to overlook both the one legitimate use of cocaine – as a local anaesthetic – and the fact that its euphoric effect had no medicinal value.

But Freud on Coke was no mere doctor, dipping into chemical vice. In recording his experiments with cocaine, Freud was working in the introspective psychological tradition of William James - a tradition, where drugs are concerned, that was later continued with substances from LSD and mescaline to MDMA (ecstasy) and arcane psychedelics by luminaries such as Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, and Alexander Shulgin. Cohen portrays Freud and his cocaine period as a pivotal point in the history of social, medical and legal attitudes towards drugs. The prohibition of cocaine that resulted from malpractice such as Freud's did not bring an end to introspective drug research, but drove it underground, where it continues to fester, with increasingly toxic 'legal highs' proliferating as drug users compare their introspective notes online. Freud on Coke traces the evolution of the current pseudo-scientific online culture of drug users' 'Field Reports' from Freud's own work on cocaine, raising serious questions concerning the future of drug regulation.

An important contribution to the literature on both drugs and psychoanalysis, Freud on Coke is also a gripping human story of self-medication, self-deception and a subsequent cover-up, that calls much of Freud's wider legacy into question.

'...his writing is passionate, sometimes wry, and always gripping.'
- The Independent on David Cohen’s The Escape of Sigmund Freud

David Cohen is author of JR Books’ The Escape of Sigmund Freud. Also biographer of JB Watson and Carl Rogers, his Diana: Death of a Goddess was a UK bestseller. A BAFTA-nominated documentary filmmaker, he was the first Western journalist to gain access to Soviet Psychiatric wards, resulting in the movie Gorbachev’s Asylums. He was editor of the magazine Psychology News and holds a PhD in Psychology.