What Is The History Of Cocaine?

Starting as coca leaves and continuing to the white powder that is known today, cocaine has been noted for its properties as a stimulant. Throughout its history, people who use cocaine have praised it for giving energy and high esteem. But American cocaine abuse shows a darker ending to the effects of cocaine.

Get Help Now!
Dr. Langdon M.D.

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly Langdon M.D.


Cocaine has a long history in the Americas. It derives from a plant indigenous to South America and was commonly used among indigenous cultures for centuries.

Its use as a drug in a powdered form began in Europe in the 19th century and instigated a craze for its effects of energy and alacrity. Soon after that, cocaine use began its long and troubled history in North American culture.

Cocaine use became so widespread that it instigated two landmark pieces of legislation to ban its use, one in the early 1900s and the second in 1986.

Where Cocaine Comes From

Cocaine comes from the leaves of the indigenous South American coca plant. It was cultivated by the Incas in the Andes Mountains of modern-day Peru.

Coca leaves were chewed and prized for increasing vitality. They were also used in religious ceremonies.

But it wasn’t until 1860 that a German chemist named Albert Niemann derived the powder we know as cocaine from the plant.

It wasn’t long after that that Angelo Mariani, a French chemist, made a drink called Vin Mariani using coca leaves and Bordeaux wine as the primary ingredients.

The drink was a sensation beloved by celebrities of the day like Thomas Edison.

Cocaine Used In Medicine

While cocaine drug use was growing in popularity, doctors in the medical establishments in both Europe and America began to use and promote the drug in different ways.

Cocaine Used As An Anesthetic

An Austrian doctor, Carl Koller experimented with using cocaine as a local anesthetic for cataract surgery. Similarly, Dr. William Halstead used cocaine to numb gums and teeth during dental surgery.

Halstead went on to become a groundbreaking surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital but he also became addicted to cocaine, injecting it. Cocaine abuse resulted in Halstead spending time in an insane asylum trying to quit the drug.

However, cocaine hydrochloride continues to be used as a numbing agent in nasal surgeries.

Cocaine Promoted As A “Cure-All” Medicine

Meanwhile, companies began promoting medical use of cocaine as a cure-all, using it in tonics and in other forms.

They also promoted it as an anesthetic until it became clear that high numbers of patients were dying from too much of it during surgery.

Sigmund Freud And Cocaine Use

Sigmund Freud became enamored with the drug as a way of treating psychological problems, and he wrote a paper on it called “Uber Coca” that praised the drug’s value.

He even recommended the drug to his friend Ernst von Fleischel-Marxow as a way of getting off his morphine addiction. Unfortunately, Fleischer became addicted to cocaine and quickly entered a state of tremors which upset Freud greatly.

Like Halstead, Freud became addicted to the drug, but unlike the surgeon, Freud quit his substance abuse when he was 40.

Cocaine Used In Products

During the time of the initial cocaine craze in the late 1800s, cocaine was used in a variety of different products thought to be medicinal or harmlessly enjoyable.

Coca-Cola And Cocaine

In 1886, an American Pharmacist named John Pemberton started a drink company called Coca Cola with a jealously guarded secret recipe.

It is now known that cocaine was a part of that recipe in the early years of the drink’s history, but cocaine was removed from the drink around the turn of the twentieth century.

Lozenges And Toothache Drops With Cocaine

Cocaine was added as a numbing agent to lozenges and to drops meant to reduce toothaches. These “medicines” with cocaine were sold and sometimes manufactured at local and regional pharmacies.

Cocaine Used In Cigarettes

In 1885, Dr. F. E. Stewart wrote an article for the Philadelphia Medical Times and Register claiming that “coca cigarettes” were useful as a mild stimulant and antidepressant. He further claimed that they could be useful in the treatment of hayfever.

Stewart got the idea of “coca cigarettes” from Dr. Lewis Louis, who mixed coca leaves with tobacco cigarettes to treat conditions like sore throat.

Cocaine Addiction And Law Enforcement

It wasn’t long before cocaine abuse and cocaine addiction became problems in American society. Newspapers of the day reported the effects of cocaine use, calling the drug a monster.

This would not be the first time that cocaine would lead to a national health crisis. But it did result in action taken by the federal government for the first time against a drug.

Harrison Narcotics Act

The Harrison Narcotics Act was signed into action by President Woodrow Wilson. The act was primarily concerned with the taxation and importation of both coca leaves and opium.

It restricted cocaine’s medical use and marketing (the same was true for opiates), and it marked the beginning of the criminalization of illicit drugs in America.

Crack Cocaine

In the 1970s, cocaine in its white powder form became a popular illegal drug in part through its prevalent use by rock and roll stars snorting it at the time.

But in the 1980s, drug trafficking shifted from pushing the alkaloid form processed in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to pushing crack cocaine.

Crack is a crystallized form of cocaine that can be smoked. At the time, it could also be sold for a higher price than the powder form.

The Crack Cocaine Epidemic Of The 1980s

The use of crack cocaine was first noticed in 1982 as what was thought to be a localized problem in Miami. But crack cocaine use quickly spread to cities throughout the United States.

In the mid-1980s, rates of crack cocaine had soared to around 5 million, and crack cocaine was thought to be connected to an increasing number of homicides and other crimes.

Anti-Drug Abuse Act Of 1986

In response to this, President Ronald Regan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, saying that he wanted to create a “drug-free generation.”

In general, the Act provided more funding to law enforcement agencies and drug education programs. It also allowed for stiffer penalties in federal cases against drug traffickers.

Treatment Options For Cocaine Addiction

Cocaine, like opioids in the prescription drug crisis today, was never a cure-all but a dangerous stimulant that can cause serious health problems in the user. But treatment options for cocaine addiction are available.

From detox to evidence-based counseling, there are treatment centers that can address both your physical and mental health when quitting cocaine.

Find A Rehab Program For Cocaine Abuse

There are rehab programs that can benefit you or your loved one with cocaine addiction.

Call the Bedrock Recovery Center helpline, and let us guide you to one of the intensive rehab programs available at our Massachusetts addiction treatment center today.

  1. Library of Congress https://guides.loc.gov/chronicling-america-cocaine
  2. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/01/business/how-coca-cola-obtains-its-coca.html?searchResultPosition=1
  3. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/28/us/reagan-signs-anti-drug-measure-hopes-for-drug-gree-generation.html?searchResultPosition=3
  4. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/books/howard-markel-on-cocaine-in-anatomy-of-addiction.html?searchResultPosition=13
  5. Pharmacy Times https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/vintage-pharmacy-ad-promoted-cocaine-toothache-drops
  6. Taylor and Francis Online https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1982.10524306
  7. Times Inside https://www.nytimes.com/times-insider/2014/12/18/1884-a-cure-all-called-cocaine/?searchResultPosition=1

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

Prefer Texting?
We've got you covered.

Receive 24/7 text support right away.
There is no obligation and you can opt out at any time.

Sign up for text support

Receive 24/7 text support right away.
There is no obligation and you can opt out at any time.
Ready to make a change? Talk to a specialist now.
(617) 657-2877
icon-angle icon-bars icon-times