History of Cocaine in America

Cocaine occupies such a talismanic presence in American culture that when a 2013 study suggested that Oreo cookies were as addictive as cocaine, the findings (and dueling interpretations) made “literally thousands of headlines,” according to the Huffington Post.[1], [2] The controversy is another addition to (and example of) the long, turbulent, and scandalous history of cocaine in America, an inevitable union of the world’s most powerful country and the world’s deadliest drug.

coca leaves

The Roots of Cocaine

To better understand cocaine’s place in America, and how it got here, it’s important to see where it comes from, and how the development of various sciences and policies shaped its potency and reputation.

The coca plant grows in the jungles of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and neighboring countries. The indigenous peoples of the region would chew the leaves of the plants in the coca family, partly for its nutritional value, but also because consuming the leaves would produce a stimulating and painkilling feeling.

Such a custom provides the first glimpse into how cocaine became a household name across the world, because the main organic compound in coca is cocaine; however, the cocaine content in the raw leaves is very low, below 1 percent. Chewing the leaves, or grinding them into powder and mixing them into liquids to drink like tea, does not produce the infamous euphoria, or cause devastating physical and mental damage, as is the case when processed cocaine is injected or snorted.

The Medical Revolution

In Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs, author Richard J. Miller posits that that European (primarily Spanish) explorers and colonists observed how the natives they conquered were rarely without the coca leaf in their mouths and adopted the habit themselves.[3] Word about how the coca leaves helped indigenous slaves stave off exhaustion and hunger made its way across the ocean to Europe, where the scientists of the early 19th century eventually extracted pure cocaine as a white, crystalline substance. A historian writes that the concentrated version of cocaine was “tens to hundreds of times more powerful” than simply munching down on the coca leaf. The resulting cocaine hydrochloride was infinitely chemically purer and infinitely more powerful.

The numbness caused by cocaine caught the eye of an Austrian ophthalmologist, whose use of the substance as an anesthetic for eye surgery was met with success and praise across Europe. Prior to his intervention, eye surgery was considered all but impossible because of the minute and reflexive motions of the eyeball to the slightest stimuli. A patient under the effects of cocaine allowed a doctor full range of operation, piquing the interest of doctors of various fields (such as dentistry).

As cocaine’s medicinal fame spread, its recreational effects did not go unnoticed. A French chemist combined wine and cocaine to produce Vin Mariani (6 milligrams of cocaine in each ounce; a bottle of Vin Mariani had around 200 milligrams of cocaine). Believing that the drink would produce health, vitality, and energy, the concoction was endorsed by such figures as two popes, Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant.