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A Brief History of Cocaine

Have you ever wondered, ‘Where did cocaine come from?’ Cocaine dates back thousands of years and has a unique history. This article will help you learn about the history of cocaine and how to get help if you or someone you care about is struggling with cocaine misuse or addiction.

Cocaine Origin: Where Did Cocaine Come From?

Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug.1 The Schedule II drug is derived from the coca plant leaves, which are typically cultivated in South America.2 Cocaine is produced by extracting the coca from the leaves and processing it in a laboratory.3 People use cocaine for its short-term effects, which can increase energy and euphoria.2 However, cocaine use can have several effects and risks, including the development of cocaine addiction and overdose.2

The 1400s–1500s: The Origin of Cocaine

Cocaine use dates back thousands of years ago in South America. Many researchers believe some of the first instances of cocaine use were in the Amazon rainforest and Andes Mountains.4 People who inhabited the areas would pick the leaves and chew them to boost their mood and later realized that cocaine could provide medicinal benefits.4

In the mid-1500s, the Catholic church began to speak against the use of coca leaves.4 Bishops attempted to restrict cocaine by going to the Peruvian government.4 Although the Peruvian government did not ban it completely, they eventually placed bans on how much land could be used to cultivate the coca plants.4

The 1800s: Cocaine’s Popularity Grows

By the 1800s, cocaine use was growing in popularity.3 People enjoyed the way it made them feel, not realizing the potential for cocaine addiction.3 Cocaine was even used as a prime ingredient in Coca-Cola.

Cocaine Is Used for Medicinal Purposes

By the late 19th century, doctors and researchers began exploring the medicinal use of cocaine.3 In 1860, Albert Nieman, a German chemist, discovered that cocaine made his tongue numb.4 This led to scientists isolating cocaine from coca leaves so that it could be used for anesthetic purposes.4 Soon, cocaine was being used as anesthesia during surgery. 4

An Austrian ophthalmologist later used the anesthetic properties of cocaine for cataract surgery.4 Up to this point, cataract surgery patients had to endure excruciating pain during the procedure because they didn’t have a way to numb the area.4 The numbing effects of cocaine were transferred to the eye, and doctors were able to perform cataract surgery.4

Once cocaine began being used for medicinal purposes, pharmaceutical companies began marketing it. However, the hype was short-lived, as many patients suffered an overdose during surgical procedures.4

Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalysis, began experimenting with cocaine in the late 1800s.4 He became highly interested in the substance, even writing a paper praising it.4 However, he soon found its addictive properties difficult to overcome.4

Coca-Cola Is Founded and Includes Cocaine

In 1886, cocaine became popular again when it was introduced by American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton.4 He founded Coca-Cola, and his delicious beverage concoction consisted of cocaine and sugary syrup.4

The 1900s: The Pushback Against Cocaine

As cocaine continued to grow in popularity throughout the U.S. into the 1900s, it became more obvious that it had many pitfalls.5 Hospitals began reporting numerous overdose cases, with 5,000 cocaine-related deaths in 1921.5 Medical literature also reported the risks for nasal damage from cocaine.5

What Year Did Cocaine Become Illegal?

With all the nationwide concerns about the risks associated with cocaine, a push was made to ban the drug.4 The first law that addressed the increasing problems was the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.4 The U.K. had its version of this law, entitled the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920.6 Both laws made cocaine illegal to obtain and sell.

Crack Epidemic

The laws cracking down on cocaine didn’t snuff it out altogether. It re-emerged in the 1970s with a flourish as a fashionable “new” drug even though it was far from new.3 In addition, it was marketed to the entertainment industry and businesspeople.3

Because cocaine increased energy and mental alertness, college students often sought out its benefits.5 As more people used cocaine, the price of it dropped. Its image of being a drug for the wealthy dissipated, and it was considered a dangerous and addictive substance.5

By the 1980s, crack cocaine, a crystallized version of cocaine smoked in rock form, emerged.4 The crack epidemic in the 1980s was fueled in part due to crack being economically accessible. This combined with the almost instant high contributed to an increase in crack addiction, deaths, and drug-related crimes, particularly within the African American communities of the inner cities.7

War on Drugs

In June 1971, the War on Drugs officially began.8 Richard Nixon expanded the drug enforcement agencies and made statements about drugs being a public enemy.8 He instilled fear in parents so that they were on board with the restrictive drug laws being implemented.8

The federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act 1986 outlined the criminal penalties for crack and powdered cocaine.3 However, the amount of punishment someone would get for crack cocaine was much stiffer than that of powdered cocaine.3 This law resulted in the arrests of many African Americans due to how inexpensive crack was compared to cocaine.3

The 2000s

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 sought to correct some of the disparity between crack and cocaine use sentences.3 However, cocaine is still widely used and is the second most trafficked illegal drug in the world.5 In 2021, there were over 24,000 cocaine-related deaths.8

Getting Help for Cocaine Addiction

History has shown that cocaine has been and will continue to be an issue that affects communities in the U.S. and worldwide. Fortunately, if you or a loved one is struggling with cocaine misuse or addiction, treatment is available to start the path to recovery.10 Recovery looks different for everyone but often begins with medical detox, followed by ongoing treatment at an inpatient or residential rehab, or outpatient rehab.

Don’t wait to get help. Contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at to speak to a caring admissions navigator about your rehab options. You can also use our directory to find a cocaine addiction rehab near you.

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