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Keri Blakinger Keri Blakinger

Ten Startling Facts About the History of Cocaine


Having served as a currency for Incas and conquistadors, a stimulant for writers and psychoanalysts and a racist tool for policymakers, this iconic drug has a backstory to set your pulse racing.

24 Substance
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“I can’t feel my face. I mean, I can touch it but I can’t feel it inside.”

That’s one of the most famous—and funniest—quotes from the 2001 Johnny Depp film Blow, about the US cocaine mega-smuggler George Jung. Although coke’s anesthetic properties are now well documented—and have long been known to dentists—they weren’t known for the first couple of decades after the drugs’s discovery in 1860. And that’s just one of the many ways our understanding of, and attitudes toward, coca and cocaine have evolved over the years. Cocaine has had a fascinating if fraught history—including the 10 following little-known facts.

1. The Incas and the Spanish conquistadors used coca leaves for currency. Andean civilizations like the Incas were the first societies to cultivate the coca plant, earning them the title of the world’s first cokeheads—or, to be more accurate, pre-cokeheads: They didn’t use pure cocaine because the process of extracting it from the plant had not yet been discovered. Instead, the Incas chewed the coca leaves, each of which contains a small amount of cocaine. Generally, coca leaves were reserved for ceremonial use and by select groups such as royalty, messengers and warriors.

Once the conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, all that changed. Initially, the Spaniards wanted to ban coca as “an evil agent of the devil.” They soon realized, though, that the Inca workers weren’t nearly as productive in the fields and gold mines without the stimulant effects of the thin, ovular leaves. So instead of making it illegal, the Spaniards decided to use coca as currency. The result was that the coca-loving Incas, to whom the concept of payment for labor was alien, ate their own money.

2. Cocaine was invented in 1860 by a mere graduate student. Albert Niemann, studying for his chemistry doctorate at Germany’s Gottingen University, first purified the active ingredient of coca leaves. He extracted the active alkaloid from the leaf and named it cocaine, describing it as “colorless transparent prisms [that] have an alkaline reaction, a bitter taste, promote the flow of saliva and leave a peculiar numbness, followed by a sense of cold when applied to the tongue.” For his efforts, Niemann was awarded a PhD and in 1860 published his findings in the book On a New Organic Base in the Coca Leaves.

Although pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud famously supported the exploration of medicinal (and recreational) cocaine and coca use, one of the substance’s most useful properties was not discovered until 1884. In that year, an obscure ophthalmologist named Carl Koller discovered the drug’s anesthetic effects. Freud asked Koller, who was a friend, to investigate cocaine as a possible cure for morphine addiction; in the process Koller realized that it could be used as a local anesthetic in eye surgery. His discovery is credited with launching the era of modern anesthesia.

3. Pope Leo XIII publicly endorsed a coca-based drink. In 1863, some 15 years before Leo’s 1878 ascension to the papacy, a French chemist named Angelo Mariani combined red wine and coca to create a product he called Vin Mariani. Given its stimulant effect, the drink, which contained 11% alcohol and 6.5 mg of cocaine per ounce, quickly became popular with the elite. However, Mariani also marketed the tonic as a general panacea, claiming, “It is a stimulant for the fatigued and overworked body and brain. It prevents malaria, influenza and wasting diseases.” (Today that would fall under the category of “false advertising.”)

Interestingly, the beverage was more effective than pure cocaine because the wine’s ethanol acted as a solvent, extracting the cocaine from the coca. The cocaine and the alcohol then combined to create cocaethylene, which has a more euphoric effect than cocaine alone. Leo XIII was so fond of the refreshment that he always carried a flask of it, appeared on a Vin Mariani advertising poster and gave the tonic a medal.

4. Cocaine used to cost 25 cents a gram, which amounts to less than $7 in today’s money. When purified cocaine became commercially available in the US in the 1880s, the wholesale cost of a gram was between $5 and $10. Before long, though, the price dropped abruptly, plummeting to just a quarter for a gram—where it remained until inflation hit during World War I. But individual users were paying a bit more than that. The street price of cocaine was 25 cents for a glycine packet containing one-tenth of a gram.

5. Freud was only one of many famous cokeheads from days of yore. During his experiments with cocaine for morphine addiction, Freud fell in love with the substance and in 1884 published Uber Coca (The Cocaine Papers), a treatise extolling the drug’s virtues. Keeping him company was Robert Louis Stevenson, who reportedly wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a six-day coke binge. His wife, Fanny, observed, “That an invalid in my husband’s condition of health should have been able to perform the manual labor alone of putting 60,000 words on paper in six days seems almost incredible.”

William Halsted, the man responsible for the use of rubber gloves during surgery and one of the leading surgeons of the late 19th century, had a nose for cocaine, too. Or more than a nose: Unlike Freud, who mostly snorted, Halsted shot it straight into his veins. He was hospitalized twice for his addiction and remained an addict—albeit a very high-functioning one—till his dying day.

In fact, the late 1800s were crowded with celebrity coca users, including US inventor Thomas Edison, French adventure novelist Jules Verne and British sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells, the king of Spain and the queen of Portugal (although not together), French sculptor Auguste Rodin, and POTUS William McKinley, all of whom consumed coca-laced drinks such as Vin Mariani.

In its various forms, cocaine use was so widespread that (unsurprisingly) it crept into the era’s literary productions. For example, in the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, the famed sleuth injects himself with a shot of cocaine after solving a difficult case.

6. Coca-Cola once contained cocaine. (This is not merely an urban legend.) In 1884, morphine-addicted physician John Pemberton began marketing his own version of Vin Mariani called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. However, a local prohibition law prompted him to discontinue the product because of its alcohol content. In 1886, the entrepreneur from Georgia state released a temperance version of the drink called Coca-Cola and promoted it as a healthier alternative to the allegedly more dangerous alcohol-containing beverages. But the ingredient was eliminated from Coca-Cola in 1903 as public sentiment and the press turned against the drug. There is, however, still coca in Coca-Cola, but the ecgonine alkaloids—the psychoactive parts—are extracted at a chemical processing plant.

7. Cocaine was criminalized in large part for racist reasons. In the early years, black Americans couldn’t easily access coca-laced soft drinks because they were sold at segregated soda fountains. However, in 1899, Coca-Cola started selling its bubbly brown drink in bottles so that anyone with five cents could consume the cocaine-infused beverage. Almost immediately, Southern newspapers began reporting that “Negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women. That sort of obvious yellow journalism continued for the next 15 years and in 1914 even The New York Times ran an article entitled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ are a New Southern Menace.”

That same year, Dr. Edward Williams wrote in the Medical Standard, “The negro who has become a cocaine-doper is a constant menace to his community.” The media’s stoking of these racial fears helped ease the passage of the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, which limited the use of cocaine to medical and scientific purposes. Legal recreational cocaine use was no more.

8. Cocaine use peaked way back in 1982. Although we tend to think of drug use as an ever-present, if not ever-worsening, problem, the use of stimulants and narcotics generally alternate cyclically. After the Harrison Narcotics Act, coke consumption declined until the 1970s, when the substance gained popularity as a supposedly non-addictive recreational drug. By 1982, there were 10.4 million annual users, but subsequently drug use decreased and by 1998, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse indicated that there were only 3.8 million cocaine users. By 2007 that number had decreased to 2.1 million and by 2012 it was down to 1.7 million.

9. The origin of “crack” cocaine is virtually impossible to trace. Some experts say that the drug was invented on the West Coast, while others say that it was independently discovered on the East Coast. Among the first major media coverage of the crack epidemic was a 1984 Los Angeles Times article entitled “South Central Cocaine Sales Explode Into $25 ‘Rocks.’” The article reported that hardened cocaine rocks had swept through the area’s black community starting in 1983.

The mid-1980s is generally viewed as the beginning of the crack epidemic, although researchers reported witnessing crack smoking in the late 1970s and the DEA reported that crack was first identified in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and San Diego in 1981. Notorious early dealers Ricky Donnell Ross and Oscar Danilo Blandon were pivotal to the drug’s spread, but as to who invented it, no one has stepped forward to claim credit.

10. Drug policy today is still racist when it comes to crack and cocaine. Hydrochloride, a salt, is chemically the only difference between cocaine and its freebase version (crack is salt free), yet currently crack and cocaine have an 18-to-1 sentencing disparity: It requires possession of 18 times more cocaine than crack to draw a mandatory minimum sentence.

Until the 2010 passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, there was a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity—five grams of crack would garner the same five-year mandatory minimum as 500 grams of powder cocaine. Although 79% of crack sentences in 2009 were handed out to blacks, studies have shown that only 15% of crack users are black. We can only hope that through tireless activist efforts, further drug sentencing reforms will close this gap. This would be a step toward a world in which black and white cocaine users are treated equally, given addiction treatment if they need it and not jailed at all.

Keri Blakinger is a recent Cornell University graduate and current staff writer for The Ithaca Times. She blogs at www.keriblakinger.com. Her previous piece for Substance.com was about 10 startling facts about the history of heroin.