Stories abound of quack doctors and medicine men proclaiming the medical effects of a “magic elixir" during the nineteenth century. Often, these elixirs contained cocaine. Overwhelmingly popular during the nineteenth century, the drug was found in elixirs and tonics, supported by Pope Leo XIII and used by doctors and pharmacists in the United States and Europe.

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History Of Cocaine Use

The Pope and physicians were not the only people to advocate the use of cocaine during the Victorian period. Writers like Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Jules Verne, Alexander Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson all used cocaine. Queen Victoria and Presidents William McKinley and Ulysses S. Grant also took the drug. When first introduced on a large scale during the nineteenth century, its use was wide-spread and supported.

Cocaine is made from coca leaves. The coca plants are native to South America, and today most of the cocaine produced in the world comes from three countries: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Before export to the United States and Europe, South American laborers often ate the leaves as a stimulant because it increased oxygen intake and allowed them to work at higher altitudes. The Spanish conquistadors first banned the use of coca, but discovered that it was necessary to work in fields and mine for gold, two money-making ventures of the Spanish. After reinstating the use of coca, the Spanish taxed the drug at 10 percent of each field's yield.

Since South American natives used coca leaves to increase productivity, others have developed stronger, more potent cocaine powders. As cocaine became stronger, the side effects and negative consequences increased.

Timeline Of Cocaine Use

  • 1855: The first chemically derived cocaine is created.
  • 1863: Italian chemist Angelo Mariana creates Vin Mariani, a wine that had 6.5 mg of cocaine per one ounce of wine.
  • 1880s: Physicians publish papers describing their treatment of patients with cocaine powder.
  • 1884: Sigmund Freud recommends using cocaine to treat depression.
  • 1886: John Pemberton, creator of Coca Cola, includes cocaine in the soda.
  • 1903: Cocaine disappears from Coca Cola.
  • 1914: Cocaine has developed a negative stereotype.
  • 1914: The New York Times publishes an article by Dr. Edward Huntington Williams which blames African American violence on cocaine. He creates the figure of the “negro drug 'fiend.'"
  • 1914: Congress passes the Harrison Narcotics Act, legislation that bans nonmedical use of cocaine and marijuana.
  • 1916: Harrods, London's famous upscale department store, sells “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front," a kit that included cocaine, morphine and syringes.
  • 1970s: Cocaine use becomes popular among the upper-class in the United States.
  • 1986: Maryland basketball star, and Boston Celtic draftee dies of a heart attack after using cocaine.
  • 1986 and 1988: Congress passes bills that legislate mandatory sentencing for cocaine users. These laws disproportionately affected lower class people and people of color, because they focused on crack cocaine rather than powder cocaine. CNN reports that possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, most likely used by more affluent addicts, receives the same penalty as 5 grams of crack cocaine, a drug most likely used by less affluent addicts. The two substances are simply different forms of the same drug.

Cocaine has had a significant effect on minds and bodies over the past 200 years. While it has not been as widely used as morphine and other opiates, its effects were widespread and highly proscribed once legislators understood the dangers of the drug.