Roses Instead of Cocaine

Most roses sold in the United States come from Colombia.

Most of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in the United States come from Colombia. Roses from Colombia make up around 60% of US florist rose sales and they account for most of the roses sold in supermarkets (and supermarkets make up about half of US flower sales).

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia ships about 150 million roses to the United States. Walmart alone purchases about 24 million Colombian roses for the holiday. Upwards of 30 to 35 flights take off from Bogota each day filled with flowers, flying mostly to the United States.

Sniff Flowers, Not Cocaine

Between 1990 and 2018 American grown roses lost 95% of their market share, from 545 million roses sold to less than 30 million. So what happened? In 1991 the US government passed the Andean Trade Preference Act with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. This eliminated tariffs on certain products including cut flowers. The legislation was a carrot (as opposed to the stick) approach to encourage cocaine producing countries to produce & export something that wasn’t cocaine and make money in the process.

The system has had questionable success in curtailing the production of cocaine, but it’s been a big success for Colombian roses. Colombia now grows 20,000 acres of flowers across over 300 industrial farms. The flower industry directly employs around 90,000 Colombians and indirectly employs 40,000 more in adjacent industries. The biggest loser in this agreement has been the American cut flower industry. The American companies still in operation have transitioned to growing higher-end roses that sell for more money intended for weddings and other special events.

Santa’s Reindeer

Santa’s reindeer are all female and possibly on drugs.

Our primary source of information regarding Santa’s reindeer is the 1823 Clement Clarke Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas). As one of the most influential cultural artifacts regarding Santa Claus, the poem tells us that Santa’s sleigh is pulled through the air by eight reindeer. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer, is optionally added to the front of the team based on the Robert Lewis May 1939 story.

Who is flying the sled?

Reindeer are a species of deer and, as an Arctic and sub-Arctic animal, they are well-suited to assist Santa at the frigid North Pole (even though they are not naturally found at the pole). They graze primarily on lichen which is found a bit south of the North Pole. Their ability to see ultraviolet light, an ability shared with other deer, allow reindeer to spot food, predators, and mates more easily amongst the highly reflective snow.

Christmas greeting card from 1921 featuring Santa and his flying antlered reindeer.

In pop-culture Santa’s reindeer are almost always depicted as having antlers. Both male and female reindeer grow, shed, and regrow their antlers. Male reindeer shed their antlers around November once mating season has ended but female reindeer keep their antlers until late May (giving expecting reindeer mothers the ability to defend food sources throughout the winter). That said, castrated male reindeer will retain their antlers February or March. Therefore all of Santa’s reindeer are either females or castrated males.

As for Rudolph, who could confusingly be a female reindeer with a male name, his/her red nose could be attributed to the reindeer nasal system which contains nasoturbinal bones. This system of curled bones increases the surface area with thin tissue inside reindeer noses which helps to warm air on the way in and recapture moisture when breathing out. It may not be glowing red, but for ordinary reindeer their noses are an evolutionary feature that enable them to live in harsh winter conditions.

The Amanita muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric mushroom, is the iconic mushroom featured throughout pop culture, which is native to Northern Europe.

Magic Mushrooms

In any of the original stories of Saint Nicholas his mode of transportation would have been a horse or a donkey. The introduction of reindeer moves the story, and Santa Claus, to the frosty areas of Northern Europe/Asia. As for flying reindeer, the ability to fly is not commonly found in reindeer. One theory for this association comes from the shamanistic religions of these northern cultures.

Due to the historically migratory nature of Laplanders they did not have a regular supply of alcohol until the recent past. It would have been fairly cumbersome to move alcohol production on a regular basis, let alone the challenge of keeping the yeast alive & active in the extreme cold. So instead as a way to come closer to God, or just go out of their minds, they had Amanita muscaria (aka the Fly Agaric) hallucinogenic mushrooms.

On their own the Fly Agaric mushrooms are hallucinogenic but poisonous. To reduce the toxic poisonous effects, but still get the hallucinogenic benefit, you have to process them. Outside of just eating lichen reindeer will also sometimes eat the Fly Agaric mushroom. The people of these northern regions learned you could “process” the mushrooms through the reindeer. After the animals had eaten the mushrooms people would collect and ingest the reindeer urine to receive the psychoactive benefits of the mushrooms with less of the toxic effects. Interestingly they would also “process” the mushrooms through other humans, which has a long (and fairly disgusting) history of people drinking the urine of others to get high.

As for flying reindeer, when the reindeer are high on the mushrooms their movements are erratic (but not flying). When humans are on the mushrooms however, they have reported taking shamanistic journeys with winged reindeer transporting them to the highest branches of the World Tree. Less dramatically, sitting around high on mushrooms people may have thought their reindeer were flying before their eyes.

Cocaine: the Early Years

Isolated from coca leaves, cocaine was widely available in various products during the late 19th and early 20th century.

The leaves of the coca plant have been chewed for their mild stimulating effects by South Americans for 8,000 years. Coca leaves made their way to Europe in the 17th century but the plant became a cash crop in the mid-19th century after German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke used the leaves to isolate the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine in 1855. Cocaine is much more potent than the coca leaves on their own, and since Europeans didn’t want to be bothered to chew leaves, manufactured cocaine became quite popular as it could be sold in numerous more easily digestible forms. Cocaine was touted as “a stimulant which is peculiarly adapted to elevate the working ability of the body, without any dangerous effect.”

With the late 19th century being the golden age of patent medicines, cocaine soon found its way into a variety of “cure-all” products. It was the new wonder drug and so businesses capitalized on that. Vin Mariani was an 1860s drink that combined Bordeaux wine, brandy, sugar, and coca leaves (which became cocaine when mixed with the alcohol). It was touted as having a variety of medical benefits and became very popular. Looking to make a similar coca-based “brain tonic”, Colonel John Pemberton of Georgia made Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. After Georgia enacted local prohibition laws in 1886 he removed the alcohol and created a non-alcoholic version of the drink that became Coca-Cola (which, in 1903, removed the cocaine).

Coca infused tonics & wines made cocaine drinkable and very popular.
Toothache drops were just one of many medicines that added cocaine.

You could have cocaine in cough drops, toothache drops, cigarettes, tonics, and as a recreational drug as just straight-up powder cocaine. Cocaine was used as a local anesthetic by dentists and by optometrists (who would put cocaine drops in your eyes). As part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Ernest Shackleton and other explorers used cocaine eye drops to treat snow blindness (the cocaine probably did more harm than good). Sigmund Freud published Über Coca in which he extolled the wondrous effects of cocaine. Freud believed that cocaine could cure opioid and alcohol addiction. He would later distance himself from touting such benefits, and stopped taking cocaine, as the dangers of addiction began to be known.

Soldiers on both sides of the war were both prescribed, and self-prescribed, cocaine.


As WWI started in 1914 cocaine was still prevalent in western society. In Britain people could go to retail stores such as Harrods and buy kits titled “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front” containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles. You could buy your loved one drugs and send them to him at the front.

The Netherlands, which was neutral in WWI, supplied cocaine to countries on both sides of the war. The Nederlandsche Cocaïnefabriek became the largest cocaine manufacturer in the world and generated enormous profits. Soldiers in the trenches were both being prescribed, and self-prescribing, cocaine for the same stimulating effects as the people at home. Theodore Aschenbrandt, a Bavarian army physician, had previously demonstrated that giving soldiers cocaine could reduce the necessary food supplies by up to 20%. The British army produced a tablet called Forced March which was a mixture of cocaine and caffeine that would give soldiers a “boost.” Shackleton took Forced March to Antarctica as well. Forced March was discontinued in 1920 because demand was “too great.”

Cocaine’s Dangers

The more that cocaine was consumed (in its many forms), the more that the dangers were exposed. It wasn’t all increased energy, sharper focus, and appetite suppression. People began to see the effects of addiction. In popular entertainment Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a drug habit of injecting cocaine from time to time, but this activity was met with disapproval from Dr. Watson.

Despite patent medicine companies paying newspapers for constant advertising space, newspapers began to report on (and sometimes sensationalized) the dangers of cocaine. Cocaine began to be associated with prostitutes & organized crime, with moral decay & societal erosion. This shifted public opinion and put in motion initiatives & laws to control cocaine (and other drugs).

Drugs have been an integral part of warfare since time immemorial. While most soldiers returning from WWI resumed their normal lives, for some the use of cocaine, morphine, and heroin had turned them into junkies. The February 12, 1916 The Times wrote that:

“… to the soldier subjected to nervous strain and hard work cocaine, once used, must become a terrible temptation. It will, for the hour, charm away his trouble, his fatigue and his anxiety; it will give him fictitious strength and vigor. But it will also, in the end, render him worthless as a soldier and a man.”

The Times, February 12, 1916

Just because the war ended in 1918 didn’t mean that a soldier’s addiction had ended.

Countries started passing laws to regulate & restrict cocaine. In the US the 1915 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act began to control the public’s access to cocaine. This was in part driven by wildly racist claims that cocaine was causing Black men to rape white women and was improving their pistol marksmanship. In the United Kingdom the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 was enacted to exert greater control over cocaine than had been done through the Defence of the Realm Act 1914. This began the West’s modern era of drug prohibition.

Tide for Cash

Tide laundry detergent is a popular product to steal in exchange for cash and/or drugs.

During economic recessions the products that continue to have strong sales numbers are the products with desirable powerful brand names. Cheerios, McDonalds, Kleenex, Huggies, Coca-Cola, Tylenol – these are all strong “recession-proof” brands. Tide, which is the best selling laundry detergent in the world, is also a strong recession-proof brand, but it has an additional ignominious distinction. Tide is a popular product to steal as a de facto street currency to exchange for cash and/or drugs.

a case of detergent locked up
As a deterrent to theft, the detergent and in particular Tide, has been locked up.

Beginning around 2011 thieves started stealing Tide from stores around the USA. Some would grab a few bottles and run, others would load entire shopping carts and stroll right out the door. Over several visits, Patrick Costanzo of St. Paul, Minnesota stole almost $6,000 of Tide from a Walmart. Some stores were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month from people stealing Tide. The stolen bottles of Tide are exchanged for $5 in cash or $10 worth of weed or crack. Dealers then sell the bottles through various middlemen at normal retail prices, or even discounted prices, but still making a substantial profit. Finally the stolen Tide appears on shelves at corner stores, flea markets, and sometimes even back at the store it was originally stolen from via shady local wholesalers.

Part of what makes Tide popular is also what makes it a great product for the black market. It doesn’t spoil, it’s a desirable brand name, and everyone needs to wash their clothes. It’s also very difficult to trace its origins, so once it’s stolen it’s hard to tell where it came from. As long as Tide remains popular people will find reasons to steal it.