A Los Angeles news agency is the subject of a lawsuit that alleges they supplied Heath Ledger with cocaine before secretly filming him using the drug. The suit filed on Friday accuses two paparazzi employed by the Splash News & Picture Agency of paying for cocaine so they could secretly videotape Ledger snorting the drug on the night of the Screen Actors Guild Awards. An unnamed freelancer who brought the suit has sought unspecified damages for fraud, distress and privacy violations. Victory would also mean the revenue generated by selling the videotape should be forfeited under a California state law forbidding paparazzi from profiting from illegal activity.
Worldwide media outlets paid more than a million dollars for the grainy footage. The footage shown after Ledger’s death went a long way to creating the impression, the actor was a cocaine addict. However while clips included a confession by Ledger he was a long term user of marijuana, they do not show him snorting cocaine. What scanty evidence there is, comes from untrustworthy British tabloids who reported a former personal assistant of supermodel Naomi Campbell’s claim that she saw Ledger indulge in several cocaine binges with Campbell. With cocaine the traditional favourite drug of the rich and famous, these rumours are easy to believe and grist to the media's mill.
Cocaine is made from a substance extracted from the leaves of coca plants native to Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. These three countries remain the primary source for the coca leaf and finished cocaine hydrochloride. The earliest inhabitants of the Andes chewed the coca leaves for its stimulating effects. Each leaf contains 2 percent of the active substance that makes cocaine so powerful. It was released by slowly chewing for an hour and its sensation it helped them survive the bitter cold of the high mountains. The Spanish conquistadors tried to outlaw the practice as they thought it encouraged immoral behaviour and laziness. But eventually economics won out and officials took over the production of coca leaf.
Cocaine itself was invented in 1855. German scientist Friedrich Gaedke devised a way of extracting and purifying the active substance from the leaf. His compatriot Albert Niemann improved the process a few years later. Both men were interested in the drug for its medicinal properties as a pain reliever. At the time, anaesthetics were ineffective and surgery was an agonising process for its victims. It wasn’t until 1880 that Russian doctor Vasili von Anrep discovered how to use cocaine as an anaesthetic and word quickly spread about its value.
One of cocaine’s earliest enthusiasts was Sigmund Freud. He published “On Coca” in 1884 which was the first study of its effects. He took the drug himself and prescribed it for his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow to overcome his addiction to morphine. This was not a successful treatment. Fleischl-Marxow became addicted to cocaine and suffered a cocaine-induced psychosis. The results chastened Freud and thereafter he regarded the drug as dangerous.
Around the same time, processed cocaine was making its way in to many products including syrups, tonics, wines and lozenges. In 1886 a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia named Doctor John Pemberton concocted a new drink which he released under the name of “Coca Cola”. Pemberton marketed the drink as a tonic. The name of the drink was inspired by two ingredients in its secret recipe: cocaine-laced syrup and caffeine from kola nuts. Under the aggressive marketing by Pemberton's friend Asa Candler, Coca Cola quickly became one of most successful soft drinks in America.
By 1900, negative publicity about cocaine’s side-effects was spreading. But Candler could not totally eliminate it from the formula without threatening the trademark status of the drink’s name. So Coca Cola began to slowly remove the drug from its formula. By 1902 it was as little as 0.25 per cent of a grain of cocaine for 30 grams of syrup. Coke did not become totally cocaine free until 1929.
By then there was a worldwide consensus to illegalise narcotic drugs. In 1924 the Second International Opium Conference agreed to make laws to control drugs. Over the next few years many countries outlawed the production, sale and possession of heroin, cocaine, opium and cannabis. In 1946 the UN assumed the drug control functions formerly carried out by the League of Nations. They established a control body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) which attempts to control production and distribution of narcotic and psychotropic substances worldwide.
The cocaine industry was driven underground. Due to the difficulties in importing and refining it, it became extremely expensive and the preserve of wealthy people. Cole Porter’s 1930s song “I Get a Kick out of You” refers to those who “get a kick from cocaine”. But the drug had a fairly low profile until new forms of the drug emerged in the 1970s. Crack and freebase brought cocaine to whole new socio-economic groups. These products were easy to make but highly addictive. But newspaper reports tend to overdramatise cocaine use in the wider public.
Although a 2000 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey (pdf) on drug usage showed that cocaine use was on the rise, it also found it was one the lesser used drugs on the Australian scene. Just 4 percent of those surveyed had ever tried cocaine and 1.4 percent had used the drug in the previous 12 months. However cocaine use had increased by 1 percent in the decade since 1991. NT and NSW had the highest percentage of cocaine users with 5.6 and 5.0 per cent respectively. The survey also found little support for the legalisation of the drug.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (pdf) support these findings. In the 1990s, they estimated that 180 million people (or 4 per cent of the world’s population at the time) consumed drugs of which cannabis was easily the most popular. Cocaine users made up just 14 million users worldwide (0.3 per cent of the world’s population). The majority of cocaine users are white males between the age of 16 and 24. The 28 year old Heath Ledger was probably a cocaine user. For media organisations to set him up to snort it so they could then film him using it, is outrageous hypocrisy. Instead of a war on drugs, we would be better served with a war on media exploitation.