Cocaine is a stimulant drug that’s made from the leaves of the South American coca plant. For thousands of years, indigenous people in the Amazon Rainforest and Andes Mountains have chewed coca leaves to get an energetic high. European scientists first isolated cocaine from coca leaves in the 1850s. Once lauded as a medical “wonder drug,” experts now recognize cocaine as one of the most addictive substances on Earth.

The Coca Plant

The coca plant is one of the oldest cultivated plants in South America. Botanists think its cultivation may have started in the Amazon Rainforest and spread to the Andes Mountains.

Because users felt an exhilarating sensation and an increase in energy, the indigenous people of South America have chewed the coca leaf for centuries. Coca leaf was also included in Inca cultural and religious ceremonies.

The Catholic Church in colonial South America saw use of the coca leaf as undermining the spread of Christianity. In 1551, Catholic bishops urged the Peruvian government to prohibit the use of coca. Ultimately, it wasn’t banned, but restrictions were put on the amount of land used for coca cultivation.

Cocaine as Medicine

German chemist Albert Nieman isolated cocaine from coca leaves in 1860. He noticed that the powdery white substance made his tongue feel numb.

Around the same time, French chemist Angelo Mariani concocted a tonic made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. He called it Vin Mariani. Advertisements claimed the popular drink could “restore health and vitality.”

More than two decades later, Austrian ophthalmologist Carl Koller experimented with cocaine as a surgical anesthetic because cataract surgery was typically performed without anesthesia at the time.

Ether and chloroform couldn’t be used because they made patients vomit—an obvious problem when performing delicate eye surgery. As a result, most cataract patients endured excruciating pain.

After soaking the eye in a cocaine solution, Koller found that patients no longer flinched when the scalpel touched their eye.

Pharmaceutical companies soon began marketing cocaine. Enthusiasm for anesthetic cocaine quickly waned in the medical community, however, as the number of patients dying of accidental overdoses during surgery soared.

Freud And Cocaine Addiction

Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist who founded the field of psychoanalysis, was fascinated with cocaine. Early in his career, he began to experiment with the drug.

In 1884, at the age of 28, Freud wrote a paper titled “Uber Coca,” which he described as a “song of praise to this magical substance.”

He overlooked a major downside to cocaine: addiction. Freud struggled for the next 12 years to break his cocaine habit.

Cocaine and Coca-Cola

American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton founded Coca-Cola in 1886 with a beverage concoction of cocaine and sugary syrup.

Coca-Cola—at first sold only at racially segregated soda fountains—became popular among the white middle-classes.

In 1899, Coca-Cola began selling its drink in bottles. The lower classes and minorities now had access to the cocaine-infused tonic.

The company removed cocaine from its products in 1903—a move likely motivated more by racial bias and tightening regulations than by health concerns.

Harrison Narcotics Act

The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 was one of the country’s first forays into national drug legislation.

The Act, introduced by Representative Francis Burton Harrison of New York, effectively outlawed the sale and use of coca and opium products.

Racist sentiment fueled support for the law. Newspapers, politicians and physicians capitalized on white fear of the mythical “Negro cocaine fiend”—black cocaine users, some believed, made particularly dangerous criminals.

Crack Cocaine

Crack cocaine—a crystallized form of the drug—became popular in the 1980s.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the price of illegal cocaine dropped by as much as 80 percent during the late 1970s as a glut of the white powder flooded the U.S. market. Dealers looking for new ways to sell their products turned to crack.

Crack could be produced by dissolving powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia and boiling it down until a solid formed. Broken into smaller chunks, or “rocks,” this solid form could be smoked.

Smoking crack brings a short, intense high, making the substance more addictive than powdered cocaine. Crack was also a lot cheaper than cocaine powder. In 1985, crack sold for about five dollars a rock in most cities.

When the first crack house was discovered in Miami in 1982, it drew little national attention. The DEA thought it was a localized phenomenon. But by 1983, crack appeared in New York and soon spread to other major cities.

The 1980s Crack Epidemic

Crack usage began to surge in the 1980s. Between 1985 and 1989, the number of regular cocaine users jumped from 4.2 million to 5.8 million people.

Around the same time, crime in some major cities spiked. A 1988 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that crack use was tied to 32 percent of all homicides and 60 percent of all drug-related homicides in New York City.

Public concerns over illicit drug use had been building throughout the 1980s, and political tensions erupted as the nation entered a so-called “crack epidemic.”

Cocaine Laws

The federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, part of the “War on Drugs,” established a disparity between the amount of crack and powdered cocaine needed to trigger certain criminal penalties at a weight ratio of 100:1 and set a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for any crack cocaine possession.

For example, the same minimum penalty of five years was given for 1 gram of crack cocaine as for 100 grams of powdered cocaine. Opponents argued the law was racist, since crack users were more likely to be African American.

In response to these criticisms, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the weight ratio between crack and powder to 18:1 and eliminated the mandatory five-year sentence for crack possession.


Drug Fact Sheet: Cocaine. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Cocaine. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs. Frontline.
How the Myth of the ‘Negro Cocaine Fiend’ Helped Shape American Drug Policy. The Nation.
Cocaine: What is the Crack? A Brief History of the Use of Cocaine as an Anesthetic. Anesthesiology and Pain Management.