The History of Cocaine
Drug of Choice
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the percentage of people taking cocaine in the United States seems to be on the decline. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that the percentage of people 12 and older taking cocaine in the last month held steady at 0.7 percent, while the percentage of those using crack cocaine in the last month came in at 0.1 percent, which is a figure that is much lower than the figure shown in 2007. While this is certainly good news, people who have studied the history of cocaine know that the use and abuse of this drug tends to ebb and flow over time. In fact, it’s quite common for experts to declare a cocaine use epidemic over, only to find that the drug use recurs at a later date.
The active ingredient in cocaine occurs naturally, as it’s produced in the leaves of the coca plant. The Incas used the leaves for ceremonial purposes, but according to a review of history published in The Independent, archaeological digs seem to indicate that the Incas also used the drug for social and medicinal purposes. The culture might have even used the leaves as a form of food, since the plant does contain both vitamins and protein.
When the conquistadors began investigating Inca culture, they discovered that the workers were more effective when they were given access to this drug. As a result, the occupying Spanish began cultivating crops of coca leaves, and some people began using it on their own.
Over time, coca leaves began making their way into Europe, but many people found the idea of nibbling on leaves to be a bit déclassé. These posh people began thinking of other ways to take in cocaine, developing teas and other drinks made by boiling and otherwise processing the leaves. However, coca leaves didn’t travel well, and the potent ingredients tended to deteriorate during the trip. In the 1880s, according to a report produced by CNN, multiple companies had developed a concentrated version of cocaine known as cocaine hydrochloride. This form of the drug didn’t deteriorate, and according to a researcher quoted by CNN, this version was “tens to hundreds of times more powerful than chewing on a coca leaf.” Suddenly, the drug was easy to take and it was very powerful.
With this powdered form of cocaine available, manufacturers began adding the drug to a variety of products, including:
- Toothache medications
- Throat lozenges
- Skin ointments
- Food products
- Teething medications
Cocaine also was touted as an effective medication to use against a morphine addiction. People who were struggling to stop using this powerful opiate were encouraged to use cocaine instead, substituting one addiction for another.
In the 1860s, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani began looking for ways to produce cocaine-laced beverages. After many failed experiments, Mariani placed ground coca leaves in a suspension of Bordeaux wine. This beverage, known as Vin Mariani, would become the second-most popular coca-containing product in history, according to PBS.
The effects of cocaine are often accelerated when the drug is combined with alcohol. For example, according to a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, a combination of cocaine and alcohol produces greater euphoria than cocaine alone, and using cocaine with alcohol results in higher cocaine concentrations within the body. The researchers suggest that the increased effects caused by the combination might lead to increased consumption of both products, and it could lead to an overdose. Mariani may not have had access to studies like this, but his alcohol/cocaine suspension seemed to cause the same feelings of euphoria and enhanced well-being found by modern people who mix alcohol and cocaine. It’s no wonder that Mariani’s wine was so popular. Multiple sources state that Pope Leo XIII kept a flask of Vin Mariani with him at all times, and other users included:
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Queen Victoria
- The Shah of Persia
- William McKinley
- Auguste Rodin
- Jules Verne
- Robert Lewis Stevenson
- H.G. Wells
When Prohibition made production of alcohol-based products difficult, if not impossible, the inventor John Pemberton placed coca leaves in a new sugary drink known as Coca-Cola. When word of the “energizing” effects of this drink became apparent, public pressure began to mount, and as a result, the ingredient was removed from the drink in 1903. Similarly, as reports of cocaine addiction, and even cocaine-related deaths, began to rise, legislators took action and moved to ban the drug. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required companies to disclose cocaine in their ingredient lists. Then, in 1914, the Harrison Act forbade the manufacture and sale of cocaine. It’s likely that legislators thought these moves would eliminate drug use within the population, but the drug would return just a few decades later.
Drug of Choice
Cocaine use remained present through the 1920s and the 1950s, but its use remained in the background. Much of this changed during the 1970s and 1980s. Young people who wanted to work hard all day and then party all night found that cocaine was the perfect drug that helped them feel “up” and awake, no matter what was happening in the world around them. Cocaine was still considered a drug of the wealthy, however, as it was remarkably expensive and out of reach for many people who were interested in drugs.
In the mid-1980s, a new form of cocaine, known as “crack cocaine,” hit the streets. This drug was more powerful than standard cocaine, and it was sold at a low price. Use of this drug began to soar as a result, and newscasters and politicians warned of an “epidemic” of cocaine and crack cocaine addiction. The public responded with understandable panic. In a 1986 Gallup poll, participants were asked to name the drug responsible for the most serious problems in society at that time. Cocaine was named by 42 percent of respondents, beating alcohol by a whopping 8 percentage points. It’s noteworthy that far more people abuse alcohol than cocaine yet people felt cocaine was the drug that merited a higher level of concern.
In 1985 and 1986, in response to public pressure, lawmakers responded with a series of legislative changes that provided mandatory sentences for people who abused cocaine. Prison populations began to rise, but cocaine use did go down. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there were 5.7 million users of cocaine in 1985, and that number dropped to 3.1 million in 1986. The number of users hasn’t topped 2 million since 1991.
It would be easy to declare cocaine addiction obliterated and controlled for good, but the truth might be much more complex. Cocaine is an incredibly addictive drug that causes persistent changes in the brain that can lead to compulsive use. In some parts of the country, the drug is still being sold at low prices. Pairing low cost with big effects is always a recipe for addictions at epidemic levels, and it’s quite possible that the epidemic will recur in the United States.
If you or someone you know is addicted to cocaine, we’d like to help. At Michael’s House, we’ve developed programs that can help people break an addiction to cocaine, and learn how to repair the damage that cocaine abuse has done. Please call us today. Our operators will be happy to outline your options and start the enrollment process.
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- Cocaine Addiction Warning Signs
- Cocaine Dependency Assistance
- Cocaine Recovery: Healing the Brain
- Cocaine Withdrawal
- Crack Cocaine Addiction
- Facts about Cocaine Trafficking in the United States
- GLBT Cocaine Dependency
- Quick Facts about Cocaine Abuse
- Street names for Cocaine: A Primer on Drug-Speak
- The History of Cocaine
- The History of Crack