By Barney Collier
November 29, 1976 12:00 PM

The glamor drug of the 1970s is cocaine, but it is far from a newcomer on the drug scene. The coca bush, from whose leaves cocaine is extracted, was regarded as a divine gift by the Incas of the Andes Mountains. Today street prices on cocaine are running about $1,500 per ounce, and the drug may be 20 percent adulterated with milk sugar, quinine or a baby laxative that looks like cocaine crystals. Many of the estimated 6.3 million Americans who have “done coke” are under 25 years old, but because of its price it is also the prestige “in” drug for such high rollers as artists, ad men, rock stars and politicians. Why is cocaine so popular? One of those trying to find out is Dr. Robert DuPont, a 6’5″, 40-year-old Harvard-trained psychiatrist who is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA gives about $1 million a year for cocaine research and in a few months will issue its first public report on the drug. Recently Dr. DuPont discussed some of NIDA’s findings on the nation’s cocaine habits with Barney Collier for PEOPLE.

Why the high price for cocaine?

It may be the most sought-after substance there is. Even monkeys and dogs—whenever they can self-administer drugs—will invariably choose cocaine. Rats and monkeys will administer it to themselves until they are dead.

What is the effect they want?

They want a very basic biological reaction—pleasure. Cocaine seems to have a unique ability to push the pleasure button.

How do users describe the experience?

Many ways. The most titillating is “a full body orgasm.” Others report that it makes the world look clearer, that they have a great sense of well-being, that they feel bigger than life, and on up the scale of euphoric sensations.

How long does the “high” last?

That’s the trick. Cocaine is a remarkably short-lasting drug. Most highs last from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, with some reports of an hour. In order for the user to stay high, the dose must be continuously readministered.

How is cocaine taken?

In the United States the common way is to “snort” cocaine, sucking it up into the nose using a straw or rolled-up currency. Show-offs like to use a $100 bill. Some people, fortunately not many, administer it intravenously.

Why is cocaine sniffed up the nose?

It is quickly absorbed into the blood through the mucous membranes of the nasal passages. At the turn of the century it used to be drunk in tea, and until 1903 it was an ingredient of Coca-Cola. But snorting gives a quicker high than swallowing it. With chronic use the nasal membranes may die, and in some cases the drug eats into the nose cartilage itself. Some users wash their noses out regularly to prevent tissue damage.

Can cocaine kill?

Overdosing with almost any drug can kill, but cocaine, unlike marijuana, for instance, can kill at not much higher than the ordinary dose. But, as far as we know, we can document only 50 cocaine deaths, and some may have been from hypersensitivity such as people develop to bee stings and penicillin.

Is cocaine addictive?

Not in the sense that you get sick if you don’t have it once you are habituated to it. You don’t kick cold turkey as with heroin. If you can’t get it, you may want it, but you don’t fall apart. On the other hand, the user, it seems, demands more and more cocaine. It may be the only drug that almost always is used and overused by its dealers. Many coke dealers snort their profits and adulterate what they sell to have more coke for themselves.

How does cocaine affect the brain?

It acts to increase the concentration of nerve transmission chemicals so that there is a stimulation of message sending and receiving. To some, that is called pleasurable and, in some cases, the ultimate pleasure.

How does cocaine differ from amphetamines and other “uppers”?

It’s much shorter-acting, and the reported “rush” or “flash”—the euphoric bang—is supposed to be greater. But a researcher in Chicago gave both amphetamine and cocaine in blind tests to some very experienced cocaine users who called themselves connoisseurs, and they couldn’t tell the difference between them. There are obviously many similarities between coke and speed.

What are the signs of cocaine use?

In a test an experienced cocaine user was injected with a large dose of the drug—big enough so that he felt the effect before the plunger was all the way down the syringe. Blood pressure and heart rate increased, but all you could notice outwardly was that he talked a little bit faster. He was in no way incoherent. What happens—if it happens—is inside the head.

Is cocaine use increasing?

Yes, and I think it will continue to increase. In South America I saw that in the Andes Mountains, where almost all of the world’s coca is grown, they are tearing out coffee plants to plant coca. Cocaine is in demand everywhere.

Why the upsurge in demand?

Amphetamines, which were abused in the 1960s, rightfully got a bad name on the street. “Speed kills!” was the warning. Speed was synthetic and cheap and attractive to drug users but very destructive to some personalities, who wound up psychotic. Then came a revival of interest in cocaine, which began to be touted as “a beautiful, natural” drug, the divine drug of the Incas. With that kind of publicity a lot of people have tried it.

Is there evidence that cocaine increases a person’s abilities?

At the turn of the century there were stories that cocaine made super performances possible, such as superior marksmanship in shooting. But the facts of the matter have never been tested. There is evidence that cocaine does help improve a deteriorated performance: when fatigue and boredom have set in, cocaine revives interest and a certain amount of alertness. But there is no evidence that someone who cannot perform a certain task or act can suddenly, magically do it with cocaine. But none of us is certain that increased performance isn’t possible.

What is the link between cocaine and creativity?

Creative people do use cocaine, and creative people do not. A doctor who wrote a book about the positive side of cocaine and took it himself quit taking it. His reason was that it interfered with his work. If you’ve ever taken an amphetamine before exams in school, what you think is an absolutely brilliant job may turn out to be mediocre when the grades come down. For those whose creativity is stifled by inhibitions, cocaine may reduce inhibitions. Some okay performances can result. If you’re fatigued, cocaine may cut fatigue.

Do people have to take more and more to get the same result?

Cocaine advocates say people do not build a tolerance, and at low dose levels that probably is so. Some people use it once a week or once a day, or they have a “run” when they use it every half hour or so all day and through the night and into the next day or two or three and never sleep. That’s still not very high dosage, but probably a certain tolerance is built up after sustained, high-dose usage.

Do more men or women use cocaine?

Men. All illegal drugs are used more by men than women. Women prefer abusing prescription drugs, perhaps because they are more comfortable taking orders from doctors. Men seem to be more venturesome and are willing to take risks.

What is the relationship between cocaine and sex?

The use of almost any drug is related in some way to something a person is anxious about, and a lot of people are very anxious about their sexual performance. Cocaine does not have an aphrodisiac quality. Setting has so much to do with how cocaine works. It’s a lot like champagne. Champagne may be associated with sex, but champagne does not cause sex. People who use it may simply need the excuse to do things they don’t think they can do. Cole Porter may have summed it up best when he wrote, Some get a kick from cocaine/I’m sure that if I had even one sniff it would bore me terrific’ly too/Yet I get a kick out of you. A human relationship may be a bigger kick than, as cocaine advocates are putting it, even “the ultimate marijuana.”