6 Things You Didn’t Know About Cocaine

Cocaine’s popularity as a recreational drug exploded in the 1980s, but it’s been around much longer. From a history as a tribal symbol to use in 19th century medicine, cocaine and humanity have a complicated relationship.

1. Cocaine’s History Goes Back Thousands of Years

The indigenous people of South America chewed the leaves of Erythroxylum coca, a shrub of the coca plant. Natives of the current region of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia used coca leaves for their nutritional value and as a stimulant and anesthetic.The leaf also was an important part of social, tribal, medical and religious rituals.2

2. Cocaine Was Marketed in Medicine for Children

After German chemists isolated the chemical compound of cocaine within the coca leaf in the mid-1850s, manufacturers included it in many products:

  • Local anesthesia
  • Shampoo for women
  • Toothpaste
  • Treatments for alcohol and morphine addictions
  • Cigarettes

As late as 1885, cocaine was legal, popular and considered so beneficial it did not require a prescription for use. For example, an exhibit on 19th-century medicines by the University of Victoria shows cocaine advertised in tooth drops for children, offering an “instantaneous cure” for only 15 cents.3


3. Cocaine Side Effects Bring Public Outcry

illustration of sigmund freudDespite the popularity of cocaine, evidence of its addictiveness grew hard to ignore or hide. The drug’s reputation waned in the late 19th century, as cases of addiction and poor health began to overtake users.4 Even Sigmund Freud (who sang cocaine’s praises because of its effects in treating depression and anxiety) swore off cocaine after suffering from an irregular heartbeat and nosebleeds, two common symptoms of cocaine abuse.5

As the world moved into the 20th century, cocaine lost its public standing.

Once used in the manufacture of Coca-Cola, the makers removed cocaine as greater use brought on allegations of social problems, including crime.6 In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act prohibited the use of non-medical cocaine (in addition to a number of other drugs) in the United States. Cocaine largely disappeared off the public’s radar, being driven underground until its explosive return in the 1970s.7

4. Crack Cocaine Developed As Cocaine Grew Too Popular

Cocaine experienced renewed popularity in the latter part of the 20th century. Fueled by celebrities and socialites who could afford the high manufacturing costs and produced by drug lords from Peru and Colombia, cocaine returned to America in a big way. But as the popularity boomed, demand exceeded the supply. Chemists cut corners to make a cheaper product — a substance more powerful and addictive than traditional cocaine.

By removing the hydrochloride salt present in street cocaine, a new generation of manufacturers started selling crack cocaine.8

5. The United States Is the World’s Greatest Cocaine Consumer

dotted style map of the United StatesEven with cocaine’s well-publicized dangers and decline in use due to stricter enforcement, cocaine is still popular in the United States. The 2011 World Drug Report estimated the global value of cocaine to be $85 billion in 2009; about $37 billion of that total came from the United States.9

Data from the 2015 National Survey of Drug Use and Health suggest cocaine is a drug of choice among the college-aged crowd, who may use the drug for socializing purposes and to cope with academic stress. Of the 1.9 million Americans age 12 and older who report using cocaine, 580,000 are ages 18 to 25. In addition 896,000 Americans report a cocaine addiction. The number of people who report cocaine addiction remained stable from 2010 to 2015 and is lower than rates from 2002 through 2009.10

6. Three Countries Are Responsible for the World’s Supply of Cocaine

For years, experts considered Colombia the king of cocaine production and supply. Cartel bosses bought off local law enforcement with promises of money and threats of savagery, allowing the cocaine business to flourish. Impoverished locals were either intimidated into joining the business or willingly signed up for the only stable work they could find.

But under pressure (and incentives) from the United States, the Colombian government stepped up its efforts to crack down on the cocaine business. In 2008, the Colombian government succeeded in confiscating or destroying 144 tons of cocaine and 350,000 gallons of the chemicals used to create recreational cocaine.11 The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s profile on Colombia showed the country had cut down 25 percent of the areas where the coca leaf was cultivated, or around 39,000 acres of land that was being farmed by organized crime rings by 2012.12
highly detailed map of south americaInto the void rushed Peru, which is either the world’s primary or secondary supplier of cocaine, depending on the year. In 2014, Peru produced 106,000 acres of coca, compared to Columbia’s 170,500 acres. Similar to Colombia, rampant poverty and poor government infrastructure is a major driver for cocaine production in Peru.13

Bringing up the rear is Bolivia. The Bolivian government authorizes its military to shoot down planes suspected of transporting cocaine, and special anti-narcotics police burned over 3,300 pounds of seized contraband in May 2014. Cultivation of the coca leaf in Bolivia dropped by 9 percent in 2013, thanks in part to more education among locals and an aggressive government policy.14

Getting Help for a Cocaine Problem

Although cocaine isn’t the dominant drug today that it was during the 20th century, it remains a potent substance that poisons the lives of its users. Evidence-based treatment for cocaine addiction, however, gives users the chance to heal.

Here at The Oaks at La Paloma, we help patients understand why they started using cocaine and teach them tools to stop using it. Please call our admissions coordinators today at 901-350-4575 to find out how to start getting better.


1 Miller, Richard J. “A brief history of cocaine.” Salon. 7 Dec. 2013. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

2 Vallely, Paul. “Drug that spans the ages: The history of cocaine.” Independent. 2 Mar. 2006. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

3 Medicine in 1860s Victoria. “Cocaine for Children?” Accessed 5 June 2017.

4 Nuland, Sherwin. “Sigmund Freud’s Cocaine Years.” New York Times. 21 July 2011. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

5 Hamblin, James. “Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda.” The Atlantic. 31 Jan. 2013. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

6 Brecher, Edward M. et al. “Chapter 8. The Harrison Narcotic Act (1914).The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. 1972. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

7 Ciccarone, Daniel. “Stimulant Abuse: Pharmacology, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Treatment, Attempts at Pharmacotherapy.” Primary Care, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2011, pp. 41–58. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

8 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “World Drug Report 2011.” Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

9 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51, 2016. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

10 Associated Press. “A look at major drug-producing countries.” USA Today. 29 Feb. 2008. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

11 UNODC. “Colombia grows quarter less coca crop, according to UNODC 2012 survey.” 8 Aug. 2013. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

12 Tegal, Simeon. “Peru’s Booming Cocaine Business Is Turning It Into Latin America’s Newest Narco State.” Vice News. 9 Feb. 2016. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

13 Tomlinson, Simon. “Coke gets in your eyes: Bolivian police burn 1,500kg of cocaine in war on traffickers in world’s third-largest producer.” Daily Mail. 15 May 2014. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.

14 UNODC. “2014 Bolivia Survey reports decline in coca cultivation for fourth year in a row.” 18 Aug. 2015. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.