The drug sometimes referred to as coke, blow, snow, and powder has a very strange reputation in Western culture. It has been innocuously associated with Coca-Cola for years, the super famous soft drink being derived from the same plant from which the powerful central nervous system (CNS) stimulant comes. It became associated with the glamorous club scene of the 1970s and further glamorized in movies like Scarface. It is also a very addictive drug of abuse and considered a Schedule II controlled substance and therefore quite illegal. Unsurprisingly, the history of cocaine and its uses or applications is as diverse as its reputation.

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Cocaine in its purest form is obtained from the leaves of the Erythroxylon coca bush which is native to South America (“Origin and History,” n.d.). The consumption of the coca leaf by humans has been traced back to 3000 BC and was used – much like it is today – as a means to “boost energy, relieve fatigue, and lessen hunger” (“Origin and History,” n.d.). McLaughlin (1972) notes that South American indigenous peoples used the coca leaves for these reasons, particularly as a consequence of living and working in high altitudes. The chewing of coca leaves is “an ancient practice among the various Andean tribes” (McLaughlin, 1972, p. 539).

Coca chewing seems to have spread as a consequence of the Spanish invading Peru (McLaughlin, 1972). However, it was not until the late 1850s that cocaine as it is commonly known emerged. In 1859 Austrian physician Alfred Niemann successfully isolated cocaine (“Origin and History,” n.d.; McLaughlin, 1972). Following Niemann’s discovery, medical applications for the substance were developed, primarily its use as an anesthetic for eye, nose, and throat procedures throughout the 1880s (“Origin and History,” n.d.). In addition to being used as an anesthetic, cocaine could also be used to constrict blood vessels and curtail bleeding and was even commonly used in teas (“Origin and History,” n.d.).

In addition to its applications as an anesthetic and a vasoconstricting agent (“Origins and History,” n.d.), there were also hopes that cocaine could be used as a cure or counter to morphine addiction, and it also saw use in psychological medicine (McLaughlin, 1972). Even Sigmund Freud experimented with cocaine as a treatment option for melancholia and opiate addiction (McLaughlin, 1972). The popularity of cocaine extended beyond medicine and psychology, primarily because of its “reputed ability to increase mental awareness” (McLaughlin, 1972, p. 545). Consequently, it gained popularity in intellectual circles, with Freud himself being a huge proponent of its use, and many famous authors like Baudelaire and Robert Louis Stevenson (McLaughlin, 1972).

Of course, all good things come to an end, and cocaine’s popularity was no different. In the late 1800s, cocaine addiction reports began to emerge, with the downsides of the drug becoming evident (“Origin and History,” n.d.). In the early 1900s, legal efforts began to outlaw coca leaf and cocaine importation, culminating in the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, which only allowed for medical uses (McLaughlin, 1972; “Origin and History,” n.d.). McLaughlin (1972) observes that widespread recreational use of cocaine likely did not occur sooner because of the development and introduction in the 1930s of pharmaceutical amphetamines. That widespread recreational use of cocaine emerged in the 1970s as a consequence of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which strictly controlled pharmaceutical amphetamine manufacture thereby curtailing their availability (“Origin and History,” n.d.). Therefore, as amphetamine’s star fell, cocaine’s star rose again. This return to popularity was “compounded by the synthesis of crack cocaine in the 1980s” which consequently catapulted cocaine “to the forefront of illicit drug use” (“Origin and History,” n.d.). Under the 1970 act, its importation is legal under certain – usually medical or scientific – circumstances.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA; 2016), cocaine use/abuse has remained somewhat stable since 2009. An estimated 1.5 million current and/or past-month cocaine users ages 12 and older were identified in 2014 (NIDA, 2016). NIDA (2016) reports that adults ages 18 to 25 demonstrate the highest rates of current cocaine use/abuse; 1.4% of young adults reported current or past-month cocaine use. But quite apart from recreational use/abuse, cocaine remains in use for medical/pharmaceutical purposes in America. It is no longer used in eye surgeries because of corneal toxicity, but it continues to be used as an anesthetic for mucous membranes of laryngeal, nasal, and oral cavities (“Origin and History,” n.d.).

There are several conclusions one may reach in examining the history of cocaine. McLaughlin (1972) notes that American drug legislation has “historically treated cocaine not only as a dangerous drug but as a ‘peculiarly’ dangerous drug” (p. 572). This is reflected in its legal classification as a narcotic that pharmaceutically speaking it is a stimulant (McLaughlin, 1972). This, McLaughlin (1972) asserts, means that cocaine has long been viewed as a primary drug menace, even since “the early years of American drug control regulation” (p. 572). Another conclusion is that while cocaine abuse has long been known as a phenomenon, there remain many questions about how it impacts human health (McLaughlin, 1972). Interestingly, the South American indigenous people did not seem to suffer from abuse or addiction issues related to chewing coca leaves and could easily end the practice without significant withdrawal systems (McLaughlin, 1972). However, one may conclude that the synthesis of cocaine from the leaves changes it somehow and increases its potential for addiction and abuse. Unfortunately, despite the evidence that is available regarding how cocaine can affect one’s health, it remains a significant drug of abuse, with nearly 6,000 deaths from cocaine overdose in 2014 alone (NIDA, 2016). One wonders what it will take for cocaine to lose its glamor and popularity.