Cocaine use in the First World War

In Murder at Merewood Hospital, Sister Helen Hopgood has seen enough drug users to know when one of her patients is taking cocaine. The story is set in a military hospital just after the First World War when cocaine has gone from being a commonly used drug to a banned substance.

At the start of the war, the army gave soldiers a gelatine-coated pill called Forced March that contained cocaine and cola nut extract. While it was supposed to improve endurance, soldiers took it to enhance their mood rather than their physical ability.

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Cocaine Kit

At this time, cocaine was not a controlled substance and was readily available to buy. In 1916, Harrods in London sold a kit that included cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles and was marketed as a present to send to soldiers on the frontline.

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Cocaine Pastilles

However, moral outrage was growing at the widespread use of psychoactive drugs like cocaine and opiates. In 1916, the army council introduced a Defence of the Realm Act to prevent the sale of cocaine, morphine and opium to the British Armed Forces.

Even after the army tried to prohibit the sale of cocaine and opiates to servicemen, they were still readily available – just more care was taken by those who traded in them.

Later, the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act criminalised civilian possession of these drugs unless there was a medical need. The Act ruled that medical practitioners were allowed to prescribe morphine, cocaine and heroin.

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Cocaine film poster

In 1922, a British crime film called Cocaine depicted the distribution of cocaine by gangsters through London nightclubs. The plot sees a man seeking revenge following his daughter's death.

The film's portrayal of drug use made it highly controversial as it was feared it would encourage the trade in banned substances. However, censors approved its release because it highlighted the danger of drugs, and it was shown in cinemas in June 1922 under the alternative title While London Sleeps.

Cocaine was popular with bright young things throughout the 1920s and 30s. Cole Porter originally wrote, 'Some get a kick from cocaine’ in his song I Get a Kick Out of You from the musical Anything Goes. The line was later changed to ‘Some like the perfume in Spain’.

And actress Tallulah Bankhead famously joked, ‘Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I've been using it for years.’

Murder at Merewood Hospital is available in hardback, paperback, ebook and audiobook from Amazon and bookstores.