A Short Take on the Long History of Cocaine

The white powder that we know as Cocaine goes by many slang names, and its highly addictive offspring, Crack has many more. Call it blow, or rail, grit or hard candy. These potent drugs stem from the coca plant, a powerful stimulant that has been in use by humans for thousands of years. Let’s have a short look into that long history.


Humans have been using substances to change how they feel for a very long time. They’ve used them to relax, and they’ve used them to increase energy, like coca, for example. Coca is a potent natural stimulant grown in South America, and its use can be traced back at least 3,000 years in the archaeological record. Three thousand years! It might be even older, but the delicate nature of the plant remains makes it difficult to find and date. What we do know is that the coca plant was used by the Incan people in the Andes, possibly to help mitigate the impact of high altitude living. Later, native Peruvians used coca in religious ceremonies. According to reports, it was taboo to do otherwise. That changed when the Spaniards found their way to South America in the early 16th century. Coca was given to Peruvian slaves to increase their productivity.


Cocaine was isolated from the coca plant by the German chemist, Albert Niemann in 1859, and in the 1880s, its use as an anesthesia and nerve blocker was discovered. One of the most famous proponents of the drug was the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. He had a “deep interest” in the drug’s medical and psychological uses, and he experimented on himself, noting his own sensations and reactions among his findings. He also shared it with his friends and gave it to patients as a cure for depression and sexual impotence. Freud described the drug as “magical” and downplayed observed negative effects like paranoid hallucinations and death by overdose. 


Like alcohol and heroin, cocaine was initially seen as a positive, life-enhancing medicine. The euphoria and energy that it offered couldn’t be beat. In 1886, John Pemberton added coca-leaves to his new soft drink, and the fizzy drink, Coca-Cola rocketed into popularity.  Between the 1850s and early 1900s, cocaine-laced elixirs were all the rage. Inventor, Thomas Edison, and the silent film actress, Sarah Bernhardt sang its praises. As general use increased so did the visibility of negative effects. Public pressure led to Coca-Cola removing cocaine from its ingredient list in 1903, but people had found other ways of ingesting the drug. By 1905, snorting the powdered version became popular, by 1910, medical professionals were reporting nasal damages in their cocaine-using patients, and in 1912, the government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths. In 1922, cocaine was officially banned.


Cocaine reemerged in the 1970s and 1980s, and the white powder became synonymous with the rich, the famous, and the beautiful. It was a glamorous party drug that fit in with late nights, loud music, and flashy fashion. Large amounts of the drug were moving into the country from South America; it was cheap, and dealers took advantage by buying large quantities and mixing it with ammonia and baking soda to create an even cheaper, solid version called crack. While the white powder was winding its way through rich parties, crack – solid, smokable, faster, and much more addictive – found its way into low income, often non-white neighborhoods. The Crack Epidemic was born.*


Sadly, despite the crack-down on drug-related offenses that arose from the Crack Epidemic in the 1980s, cocaine, in both powdered and rock form, continues to be a significant problem in the United States. According to research published in the journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the number of cocaine users in the US continues to rise. Unfortunately, cocaine deaths are rising too. Between 2014 and 2016, the year of the most recent published survey, cocaine overdose deaths increased from 5,892 to 11,316. Cocaine remains a popular and very dangerous drug in the United States, but treatment is available. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out. We’re here to help.


*You can read more about the Crack Epidemic in our blog post titled: Racism and Addiction Part I: The Crack Epidemic.


**You can read more about the Opioid Epidemic in our blog post titled: Racism and Addiction Part II: The Opioid Epidemic