The History of Cocaine

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Article Summary

The coca leaf has been used for thousands of years in South America as a stimulant. Use of the drug increased in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when its addiction potential became apparent.

Cocaine use declined in the early 20th century, only to rise again in the 1970s—a resurgence fueled partly by media glamorization.

By the 1980s, drug dealers developed a potent, smokable free-base form of the drug known as crack. The drug spread across the United States and was cheaper and easier to access than powdered cocaine. Worldwide demand for the drug began to decline after it reached a peak in the early 1980s; however, recent statistics show that the drug may be making a comeback.1

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant that can increase energy, eliminate fatigue, and increase alertness.2

People snort, smoke, and inject cocaine in its various forms. Although many seek out the more intense and quicker method of smoking crack, this form of cocaine and its method of use may increase the odds of overdose and addiction development.2

Cocaine is rapidly broken down, predominantly via metabolic pathways in the liver, over the course of an hour—meaning that a user is ready for another dose in roughly 40 minutes or less after the first dose. This rapid rush and fall of the blood’s cocaine levels often drives people to attempt to recreate the original high over and over—by using more and more cocaine.2

Ancient Use

Cocaine is harvested from the leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca), which grows wild in the Andes Mountains in South America. As early as the 6th century, there is documentation that coca played a pivotal role in the lives of South American natives. They chewed on the leaf to increase endurance and stay alert at high altitudes. The tradition of chewing coca leaves in this region continues today.2

When the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they tried to control and restrict the use of coca. However, they realized that the Incas worked harder if given the drug.2

Medical Use

In the 1800s, coca was imported to Europe, and the German chemist Albert Niemann figured out a way to isolate the drug from the leaves in 1860. Nine years later, a chemist named Angelo Mariani concocted a medicinal wine called Vin Mariani, a mixture of wine and cocaine. This new drink became widely popular across Europe.2

bottles of soda looking like coca cola
American companies noticed the popularity of the drink and created their own cocaine-containing tonics. Pharmacist John Pemberton created one in particular: Coca-Cola. Eventually, Asa Candler, another pharmacist at the time, saw the potential to market the Coca-Cola tonic so he purchased the rights to the formula. His company soon became one of the most widely known brands in the world.2

In the late 1800s, William Halsted, a famous surgeon who pioneered many surgical techniques, investigated cocaine for its anesthetic potential. He began injecting it himself and eventually became addicted to the drug. He once stepped out of the operating room at the last minute and went on a cocaine binge. He eventually admitted himself to an insane asylum to rid himself of the addiction . There, instead of being treated for his addiction, he was given morphine, and he eventually left the asylum as both a cocaine and morphine addict.3

Sigmund Freud, a neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, became an early adopter and supporter of cocaine. His enthusiastic endorsement of the drug helped popularize its use across Europe. In 1884, he published Uber Coca, a medical analysis of cocaine in which he praises its many uses.4 He encouraged his good friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow to try the drug to kick his morphine addiction. Marxow complied, but merely supplanted his morphine dependence with a cocaine addiction. He eventually developed stimulant psychosis from injection of large doses.2

Karl Koller, an ophthalmologist and friend of Freud, explored the potential benefits of cocaine as an anesthetic agent. He published a paper on cataract operations that anesthetized an eyeball by administering a dropper full of water and cocaine. This led to cocaine’s use in operations of the eye, ear, and nose. Today, pharmaceutical cocaine continues to be used as a local anesthetic during some surgical procedures and other clinical applications.2

Popularity in Late 1800s and Declining Use in Early 1900s

Throughout the early 1900s, unregulated tonics contained dangerous ingredients such as opium and cocaine. Some of the drinks had so much cocaine (hundreds of milligrams per milliliter) that people would drink them and overdose. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required manufactures to list all the ingredients in tonics.2

After The New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association published reports that cocaine addiction among black people was leading to serious crimes, rates of use declined. By the 1930s, cocaine use was largely overshadowed by amphetamines.5

Around this time, a doctor synthesized procaine, an anesthetic agent safer than cocaine. Since this drug was much less addictive than cocaine, it became the preferred local anesthetic used during surgery. Over the following years, the medical community had access to even more safer anesthetic options , and the use of cocaine continued to decrease.5

By 1914, cocaine was outlawed in the United States and the Harrison Narcotic Act caused use of cocaine to decline rapidly in the 1940s through the 1960s.6

The 1970s Cocaine Boom and the 1980s Crack Epidemic

In the 1970s, cocaine became a recreational drug among the wealthy. Using cocaine was often glamorized in film and popular media. Articles written during the time proclaimed cocaine as non-addictive.6

low view of hollywood street
In the early 1980s, The New York Times published an article about the use of cocaine in Hollywood . According to the story, Los Angeles police reported that drug dealers were selling the drug on Hollywood film and television sets and even riding around in limousines to visit the homes of celebrities, who would spend as much as $1 million a year on cocaine.7 The drug was often viewed as harmless until the emergence of crack.6

In 1976, Thomas “Tootie” Reese was introduced to “freebasing” and soon learned how to make crack, a hard, rock-like form of cocaine.8 Heating the rock with a flame produces a cocaine vapor that is inhaled in the lungs and quickly enters the blood stream and brain.9

Reese became a prominent drug dealer in South Central Los Angeles and sold crack cocaine in predominately black communities.8 Between 1984 and 1985, crack appeared in major U.S. cities such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.9 South American drug cartels—particularly those in Colombia—began increasing their production of cocaine. Dropping prices and increased demand for crack cocaine led to widespread use.8

In 1986, a person could buy a gram or half gram of powder cocaine for $50 to $100. For $5 to $20, a person could buy a vial of crack rocks.9 In the early 1980s, a kilo of cocaine cost between $47,000 and $70,000. By the end of the 1980s, the price dropped to between $10,000 and $38,000.8

The Los Angeles Times was the first major newspaper to run a story about crack’s popularity, with an article titled, “South Central Cocaine Sales Explode Into $25 ‘Rocks.” Notorious drug dealers such as Reese, Ricky Donnell Ross, and Oscar Danilo Blandon played key roles in the spread of crack cocaine during this time.8

Response to Crack Abuse

Given that crack use exploded in the inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles among predominately African American communities , racial prejudice, unfair sentences, and the propagation of several myths about the drug and its effects negatively affected many cocaine users.9

In 1986, basketball star Len Bias died of a drug and alcohol overdose 3 days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. Bias was African American, and the media assumed that he died of a crack cocaine overdose.9

Shortly after his death, Congress agreed that crack cocaine use was spiraling out of control and passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The law established tougher sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. This meant that individuals could be sentenced to 5 years in prison for a crime involving 500 grams of powder cocaine or 5 grams of crack cocaine—a sentencing ratio of 100:1. It was later revealed that Bias died of a powder cocaine overdose, but the law was already in place.9

Two years later, Congress passed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1988. This law instituted 5-year minimum and 20-year maximum prison sentences for possessing 5 or more grams of crack cocaine. At the time, the maximum prison sentence for possessing any amount of powder cocaine was no more than 1 year in prison.9 Not only did these laws affect thousands of individuals at the time, but the repercussions can still be felt today.

African Americans were more likely to be convicted of these cases even though their rates of crack cocaine use were lower compared to whites and Hispanics. African Americans were also more likely to be prosecuted, while whites were more likely to have their charges dropped.9
By 2003, the average crack cocaine sentence was 123 months, which was 3 and a half years longer than the average powder cocaine sentence.9

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA). The act reduced the bias in sentencing between offenses for crack and powder cocaine.10 Up to this point, offenses for crack cocaine were much longer and harsher than offenses for the equivalent amount of powder cocaine. Scientific and medical reports confirmed that these 2 forms of cocaine do not differ in their effects, and thus their sentences should not carry different penalties.9

Use Today

Worldwide, the demand for cocaine has declined over the past few decades. Between 1982 to 2008, the number of past-year cocaine users dropped by almost 50%. It decreased from 10.5 million in 1982 to 5.3 million in 2008.11 In 2015, there were an estimated 4.8 million past-year users.12

Although the recent trend in drug abuse has veered more towards opioid and heroin abuse, it appears that cocaine is making a comeback. According to a report by the U.S. State Department, Colombia had a 42% increase in coca cultivation between 2014 and 2015. Given that Colombia is a major supplier of cocaine to the United States, this could lead to more of the drug trafficked into the country. In 2015, the Colombian government seized 295 metric tons of cocaine and other drugs.13

In addition, in 2015, the number of overdose deaths involving cocaine was the highest it had been since 2006 and the second highest since 1999.14

If you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine abuse, there are programs across the country that specialize in treating this problem. Those who need help should speak with a physician or other qualified addiction treatment professional. Additionally, sites like ours can help you begin researching your treatment options.


[1]. U.S. Department of Justice. (2013). National Drug Threat Assessment Summary .

[2]. Kuhn, C, Swartzwelder, S, Wilson, W. (2014). Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy (Fully Revised and Updated Fourth Edition). W. W. Norton & Company.

[3]. NPR. (2011). A Tale Of Two Addicts: Freud, Halsted and Cocaine .

[4]. Freud, S. (1885). Über coca . M. Perles.

[5]. Redman, M. (2011). Cocaine: What is the Crack? Cocaine: What is the Crack? A Brief History of the Use of Cocaine as an Anesthetic . Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, 1(2), 95-97.

[6]. PBS. (n.d.). A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs .

[7]. Lindsey, R. (1982). Pervasive Use of Cocaine is Reported in Hollywood . The New York Times.

[8]. The United States Justice Department. (n.d.). The Roles of Ross and Blandon in the Spread of Crack .

[9]. ACLU. (2006). Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law .

[10]. ACLU. (n.d.). Fair Sentencing Act .

[11]. Lyman, M. D. (2013). Drugs in society: Causes, concepts, and control . Routledge.

[12]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Prescription Drug Use and Misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health .

[13]. United States Department of State. (2017). International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Volume I: Drug and Chemical Control .

[14]. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2016). State Estimates of Past Year Cocaine Use Among Young Adults: 2014 and 2015 .


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