The History of Cocaine Use

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  • 0:01 Coca Leaves
  • 1:47 Cocaine as Medicine
  • 3:16 Banning Cocaine
  • 4:58 Cocaine's Resurgence
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The use of coca can be traced back to 3000 B.C. Cocaine use reached its popularity in the 1980s but remains a heavily abused drug. This lesson traces the history of cocaine and cocaine use.

Coca Leaves

Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud and early film actress Sarah Bernhardt all touted the wonders of cocaine. But a century later, cocaine is better known as a drug of abuse. It's listed as a contributing cause in the deaths of popular entertainers John Belushi, Chris Farley and Whitney Houston.

The use of coca can be traced back to 3000 B.C. Coca is a tropical shrub native to high regions in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The ancient people of these areas chewed the leaves of the coca plant during religious ceremonies and to speed their breathing and stamina when working in the thin mountain air.

The leaves of the coca shrub contain an alkaloid that was eventually used to produce pure cocaine. This alkaloid was first isolated in the mid 1800s by a German chemist. By the late 1800s, cocaine was widely marketed to the medical community because it seemed to offer positive effects. Cocaine is currently defined as an addictive, psychoactive, stimulant drug. Let's take a moment to dissect that definition, keeping in mind that people did not yet know that cocaine was addictive.

Psychoactive drugs are 'those that affect the brain and alter mood, behavior and cognitive processing.' Stimulant drugs can stimulate different areas of the body. Cocaine is specifically a mentally stimulating drug. These drugs produce extra brain activity and promote a sense of well-being.

Cocaine as Medicine

You might see how early users were attracted to cocaine. Sigmund Freud was one of cocaine's greatest advocates. Freud called it a 'magical' drug and recommended it for treating depression and sexual impotence. Cocaine's popularity soared after the invention of Coca-Cola in 1886. The new soft drink included coca leaves as a main ingredient and claimed consumers would experience euphoria and exhilaration. For years, Coca-Cola was advertised as providing sustained brain effort.

Into the early 1900s, concoctions containing cocaine and opium were commonplace. Various tonics, elixirs and potions depended on these key ingredients. During the same time, cocaine was a popular staple among the new stars of Hollywood's silent film industry.

However, the addictive nature of cocaine emerged as recreational use of the drug rose. Soon, people of all social classes had access to the drug. Cocaine fiend was a term used to describe cocaine addicts of the early 20th century, especially those who were racial minorities. 'Fiends' were people who abused cocaine for long periods of time and were prone to sleeplessness and violence. Under public pressure, Coca-Cola removed cocaine as an ingredient in 1903, though cocaine wasn't legally regulated until 1914.

Banning Cocaine

Cocaine was readily available, and largely considered to be socially acceptable, prior to 1914. That's when the Harrison Narcotic Act was passed. The law required a license and fee for manufacturers, importers, pharmacists and physicians providing over-the-counter narcotics. The law was meant to address international relations regarding tax and trade.

Nevertheless, this was during a time when the government was taking note of cocaine abuse. In 1912 alone, the U.S. recorded nearly 5,000 cocaine-related deaths. The drug was blamed for a general decline in morality, and many politicians advocated for narcotic and alcohol prohibition. Though keep in mind that the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting alcohol, wasn't effective until 1920. The Harrison bill effectively outlawed the recreational use of cocaine because it made it exceedingly difficult for suppliers to obtain. Ultimately, laws were strengthened until cocaine was only available through a doctor's prescription.

Today, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II Drug. This means it is a controlled substance with a high potential for addiction and abuse but can be administered by a physician for legitimate medical purposes. Cocaine is actually still available by prescription and is a medically recognized local anesthesia. However, it's rarely used since safer drugs, such as lidocaine, are widely obtainable.

Cocaine's Resurgence

Cocaine's legal classification hasn't kept some people from using the drug in a recreational setting. The 1970s saw a new generation of cocaine users. The stimulant once again emerged as a popular choice for entertainers and business elite. By 1985, an estimated 5.7 million Americans used cocaine. This time around, the drug was smuggled into the U.S., mostly by Colombian drug cartels with elaborate operations. At one point, the cartels were thought to be exporting up to 800 tons of cocaine a year.

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