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A Brief History of Cocaine Addiction: 1859-Present

cocaine history

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Table of Contents

Where Does Cocaine Come From?

Cocaine comes from the leaves of the coca plant, Erythroxylon coca. Though powdered cocaine was not commonly used until the 20th century, coca leaves are known to have been used as a stimulant as early as the 16th century, and cocaine concentrate was first extracted from the plant in 1859.

When and Where Was Cocaine First Used?

Cocaine (as coca leaves) was used as far back as 3,000 BC by the ancient Incas of the Andean region in South America. When Spanish explorers from Europe first journeyed to the regions of Central and South America in the mid-16th century, they noted the existence and use of the plant by indigenous peoples.

The Andes mountain range, where the coca plant is native, is located in the countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia today.

Restricted by a growing climate of rocky, mineral-rich soils, large amounts of sunlight, and cool temperatures, the plant stayed relatively close to its origins until the mid-19th century.

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What Was the Coca Plant Initially Used For?

The indigenous peoples of Northwestern South America had multiple uses for the coca plant. The ancient Incas chewed the leaves of the plant to produce a stimulant effect that would speed up their breathing rates as a way of adjusting to living at higher elevations, where oxygen levels are lower than at sea level. Others used the plant to elevate mood, decrease appetite, or as a digestive aid.
Native Peruvians ingested the leaves during religious ceremonies as a way of stimulating the mind to the point of auditory and visual hallucinations, which they believed would help them reach a state of spiritual transcendence.

When Did Cocaine Show Up in America?

Cocaine first came to the United States in the mid-19th century. American drug companies began to explore other world regions for new medicinal remedies and found the coca plant. In its earliest days in America, cocaine was used in nausea pills, in toothache drops as a numbing agent, and in sinus medications as pain relief. Cocaine is so popular in the United States for now and there many modern terms about the value of cocaine and amount of the drug, e.g., 8 ball of Coke and so on.
When Did Cocaine Show up in America?

History of Cocaine in America

1859 — Cocaine was first extracted from the coca plant by German chemist Albert Niemann.
1884 — Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist recognized most famously as the founding father of psychoanalysis, published a book titled, “Über Coca,” or “About Coke.” In his book, he praised cocaine for its “magical” properties and “benefits” such as having the potential to cure depression and sexual dysfunction.
1885 — John Pemberton developed and registered his French Wine Coca as a patent medicine, or tonic (a commercial product heavily advertised as an over-the-counter remedy, often without scientific proof of its effectiveness). Pemberton’s actions are said to have been inspired by the immense success of a French coca wine, Vin Mariani.
1886 — In response to prohibition legislation, John Pemberton created a non-alcoholic version of the French Wine Coca: Coca-Cola. He claimed his drink cured things like morphine addiction, nerve disorders, headaches, indigestion, and erectile dysfunction.
1903 — The Coca-Cola Company removed actual cocaine from Coca-Cola as a result of public pressure to do so once cocaine’s addictive properties became more widely known. Because the soft drink derived much of its flavor from cocaine, the company began using a version of coca leaf from which the cocaine extract had been removed to continue the production of a drink with a similar taste.

1905 — By this time, the powdered form of cocaine was being snorted for recreational purposes.

Any recreational use of cocaine is considered as abuse and refers to illegal activity.
1910 — Cocaine started to receive even more attention in the form of hospital records and medical literature as it related to cases of nasal damage (caused by snorting the substance).

1914 — Cocaine was banned (with the exception of a few medical uses) by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

The 1970s — The drug re-emerges into society as “a rich man’s drug” because of its high price tag and growing use among the elite—entertainers and wealthy business people. Because it was relatively pricey at the time and due to its supposed lack of “serious consequences,” cocaine was also referred to as “the champagne of drugs.”
The 1970s was when freebasing first came into play as well. Smoking the substance through a pipe introduced cocaine into the system in a more potent form and caused the user to feel its effects more quickly.
In the late 1970s, Colombian traffickers set up elaborate trade networks with connections to the United States that would soon transport the drug throughout the country with ease.
The 1980s — By this time, cocaine was no longer considered a “rich man’s drug.” As its adverse effects were discovered, displayed, and dealt with, cocaine soon began to be associated with poverty, crime, and death.
The 1980s was also the time that crack cocaine came into the picture. Crack cocaine (given its name because of the crackling noise it makes when burned) reached the brain at an even faster rate than freebase cocaine and therefore produced a more intense high.

By the mid-1980s, approximately six million Americans were using the drug on a regular basis.

According to a national survey on drug use that tracked the use patterns of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders, starting in 1981, cocaine use increased by one-quarter in the South, doubled in the Midwest, and nearly tripled in the Northeast and West. These ratios remained steady for the next six years before use started to decline in some areas and gaps between the regions were reduced.
The 1990s — In the early 1990s, Colombian cartels were exporting 500 to 800 tons of cocaine per year to the United States, Europe, and Asia. Near the middle of the decade, U.S. law enforcement broke up the large cartels; however, the large cartels were soon replaced by more than 300 smaller organizations. From that time there are many names that dealers and users have been created – slang for cocaine.

Between 1993 and 1999, the percentage of twelfth graders nationwide that have used cocaine in the past year rose from 1.5 percent to 2.7 percent.

The 2000s — Between 2000 and 2007, annual use among twelfth graders saw a gradual decline until it leveling out for a period.
The 2010s — Annual use among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders, college students, and young adults has declined even more so since 2007; in 2015, use was relatively low among these groups (between 0.2 and 1.1 percent).

  1. Redman M. Cocaine: What is the Crack? A Brief History of the Use of Cocaine as an Anesthetic. Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. 2011; 1(2): 95–97. doi:10.5812/kowsar.22287523.1890.
  2. Karch A. B. Cocaine: history, use, abuse. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1999; 92: 393-397.
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. What is cocaine? 2016.
Medically Reviewed By Michael Espelin APRN
Isaak Stotts

About Author

Isaak Stotts, LP

Isaak Stotts is an in-house medical writer in AddictionResource. Isaak learned addiction psychology at Aspen University and got a Master's Degree in Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling. After graduation, he became a substance abuse counselor, providing individual, group, and family counseling for those who strive to achieve and maintain sobriety and recovery goals.


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  • Bandile
    This is so helpful and educating.thank you for the resources