Cocaine through the Ages

Cocaine is one of the most widely used drugs in the world and has retained that status for more than a century. In fact, people were using variations of cocaine and its derivative – the coca plant – thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, people tend to forget history that they don’t want to remember, and our long association with cocaine use is one of these instances. However, use of the coca plant hasn’t always had the negative connotations that it has today. Hundreds of years ago achieving an altered state of consciousness by chewing on coca leaves was considered a spiritual – and necessary – part of life. As recently as the last century the drug was hailed as one of the most useful therapeutic substances ever known. But today the drug is mainly associated with the depravity of substance abuse and drug addiction. Understanding how this transformation has occurred is critical to creating awareness about the effects of cocaine use and addiction.

The coca plant is indigenous to South America and is the source of most street cocaine that is available today. The plant is widely revered by indigenous peoples in the Andean mountain ranges and other areas in Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Bolivia and other parts of South America. According to the Wikipedia entry for Coca:

“Fresh samples of the dried leaves are uncurled, are of a deep green on the upper, and a grey-green on the lower surface, and have a strong tea-like odor. When chewed, they produce a pleasurable numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent taste. They are traditionally chewed with lime to increase the release of the active ingredients from the leaf. Older species have a camphoraceous smell and a brownish color, and lack the pungent taste.” (1)

Unlike other widely available but naturally occurring drugs like marijuana and the poppy plant, coca plants can actually grow into tree-like bushes and live for 40 years or more. However, cocaine is generally only made from young, fresh leaves.

The plant has enjoyed a revered status among indigenous South American peoples for thousands of years. Evidence suggests that the plant has been used to make analgesic compounds for surgery, spiritual use, recreational use and to increase speed and energy. Early South American peoples would chew the leaves and obtain a short “high” or burst or awareness and energy. In order to sustain this effect, many would chew the coca leaves consistently throughout the day.

The leaves of the coca plant contain alkaloids that are powerful central nervous system stimulants. The effects of these alkaloids cause a general sense of well-being in the user as well as a heightened sense of awareness and physical abilities. It also has powerful analgesic effects. Padre Blas Valera, a sixteenth century writer and historian whose father fought against the Incan Empire, wrote about the medical properties of the coca plant in 1609:

“Coca protects the body from many ailments, and our doctors use it in powdered form to reduce the swelling of wounds, to strengthen broken bones, to expel cold from the body or prevent it from entering, and to cure rotten wounds or sores that are full of maggots. And if it does so much for outward ailments, will not its singular virtue have even greater effect in the entrails of those who eat it?” (2)

However, it wasn’t for another two hundred and fifty years that cocaine was synthesized from coca leaves. In 1855 cocaine was synthesized in the laboratory and quickly became one of the most popular and widespread drugs in America. The drug was used by all classes of people and was particularly popularized by early Hollywood silent film actors and actresses. Thomas Edison is even said to have advocated the use of cocaine for various purposes. (3)

Cocaine use was so widely accepted that less than thirty years after it was first synthesized one of the most famous psychotherapists of all time was not only advocating its use but using it prolifically himself. In an article for CNN Health, Caleb Hellerman quotes an 1884 letter to the woman who would one day become wife:

“If all goes well,” he wrote his future wife, Martha, “I will write an essay on it and I expect it will win its place in therapeutics by the side of morphine and superior to it. … I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success.” (4)

However, by the turn of the century public sentiment regarding cocaine use was turning. Addiction to cocaine and other drugs like morphine and heroin were becoming more widespread or at the very least more widely publicized. In 1915 the Harrison Act was passed that sought to regulate and tax the manufacture and distribution of drugs containing cocaine and other narcotics. While the act did not stop people from finding ways to obtain illicit cocaine, it did have some success in regulating the importation of the drug into the U.S.

By 1970 cocaine use was becoming extremely popular in clubs and dance halls around the country. This meant that the drug was largely being used by the nation’s youth, and with the ever more efficient nature of media like television and radio to report on this phenomenon it wasn’t long before the federal government stepped in. In 1970 the CDAPC Act officially made use, possession, distribution and manufacture of cocaine illegal and laid out stiff penalties for offenders that are enforced to this day.

But despite these laws and brutal enforcement measures, cocaine remains as one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the world. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“In 2009, 4.8 million Americans age 12 and older had abused cocaine in any form and 1.0 million had abused crack at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.” (5)

These statistics indicate that cocaine abuse and addiction is a problem that isn’t going to go away despite the toughest prevention measures. If you or someone you love is struggling with a cocaine problem, the time to get help is now. We have cocaine addiction experts standing by to speak with you confidentially about what you options are and how to get effective treatment started right away. All you have to do is call the number at the top of your screen.

(1) Wikipedia Coca
(3) NARCONON International History of Cocaine
(4) Hellerman, Caleb Cocaine: The Evolution of the Once-Wonder Drug CNN Health 07/22/2011
(5) National Institute on Drug Abuse Cocaine

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Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers

The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More

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