A photograph depicting the many ways in which cocaine can be taken, whether snorted, eaten, or injected.

The Origin of Cocaine and How It Became the Deadliest Natural Stimulant

More than 2000 years ago, the ancient Incas chewed the coca leaves for the stimulating effect. The coca leaves became part of their everyday life, part of their rituals and daily routines. It was not until the Spanish arrived that the leaves spread throughout Europe. Soon, it would lead to campaigns to prevent the spread of cocaine.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug, made from the leaves of the South American coca plant. It remains the oldest, most potent, and most dangerous stimulant of natural origin.

There are continuous raids by police, finding large amounts of smuggled cocaine. Whether found in houses or abandoned warehouses, cocaine aids in the never-ending war on drugs.

Many have their reasons for snorthering, injecting, or smoking the substance. However, the pondering question is how much is a short, euphoric high worth if the negative effects last a lifetime. Those that choose to quit ‘cold turkey’ have a battle of a journey. At times, the craving for the poisonous substance is a stronger call than sobriety.

Origin of Coca

A photograph of the 'coca' leaveswith its red berries.
image source: bioweb.uwlax.edu

Thousands of years ago, before ‘Before the Common Era’ (B.C.E.), ancient Incas in the Andes and Amazon Rainforest chewed coca leaves for an energetic high. In the Andes, ancient Incas chewed coca leaves to get their hearts racing and increase their breathing. It battled the effects of living in thin air.

Coca derives from the Incan word ‘kuka’. It plays an important part in their history, sacred rites and rituals.

The Story of Kuka

Incas in the Andes told a story of a women named Kuka. Her appearance was like no other. No one in the empire could resist her beauty. Aware of her beauty, and therefore her power, Kuka used it to take advantage of men.

However, her actions became known by the Incan Emperor, the Great Inca. He ordered her sacrifice, her body cut in half and buried.

From her grave miraculously grew a plant that gave strength and took away pain. The Incans called it ‘kuka’, or coca, in honor of  the beautiful woman.

Coca in Sacred Ceremonies

Large amounts of coca were sacred.

At the tallest altar, coca leaves burned. Then, their fumes blew towards the sun, their main deity, and other gods. It was a ritual to heal the sick.

Some priests specialized in reading coca leaves, a source of divinatory power.

As well, coca leaves were buried with the dead. Along with the other goods buried, they accompanied the deceased to the afterlife.

Moreover, it played a role in human sacrifices.

In 1999, archeologists discovered Incan sacrificial victims. Examinations revealed their high consumption of coca. Evidence suggests that they took large quantities months before their deaths. Professionals believed the coca leaves put the victims in altered trances, or holy states. Also, it disorientated the victims, which made them easier to subdue.

Cocaine Enters Europe

An artistic interpretation of when the Spanish first came into South America and found the Inca Empire, where the two leaders seen holding out their hands in good faith to shake.
image source: quizlet.com

The Spanish first came to South America in the 1500s.

They found the indigenous people of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. They observed that the people chewed the leaves for the stimulating effect. As well, it suppressed their appetite. They worked for long hours at high altitudes, where the plants commonly grew.

Seeing the effects motivated the Spanish explorers to send the plant to their home region. Additionally, their interest peaked in the gold and silver mines in Peru and Bolivia. The Spanish explorers recruited and/or forced the native population to work in the mines. Moreover, they enforced the constant chewing of the leaves, making it easier to control and exploit the native population.

They mined more gold and silver, which the Spanish explorers sent to Spain. The native population did not require as much food or rest. However, their bodies wore out faster compared to how they used the plants before the Spanish arrived.

The use of coca kept to South America.

Soon, there came a method to isolate the active ingredient. This brought out its other ‘uses’.

Cocaine for Medicinal Purposes

A vintage copied image of an advertisement for children's cocaine toothache drops.
image source: fineartamerica.com

Albert Neiman

The German chemist isolated the active ingredient from the coca leaves in 1860. The active ingredient held the stimulating effect. As well, Neiman coined the term ‘cocaine’.

As he examined the powdery substance, he discovered more of its properties and effects. It had an alkaline reaction, brought a bitter taste, a flow of saliva, and a numbness of the tongue.

Angelo Mariani

Mariani, a French chemist, created the ‘Vin Mariani’. It was a mixture of Bordeaux wine and cocaine. It became a popular drink that could ‘restore health and vitality’.

Mentioned in its advertisements, the drink aided as a stomach stimulant. As well as a pain reliever, it was an appetite suppressant and anemia treatment. Soon, it became favored among kings, queens, and celebrities, such as Jules Verne, Queen Maria Amélie of Portugal, and Pope Leo XIII.

Carl Koller

An Austrian ophthalmologist, Koller experimented with cocaine as a surgical anaesthetic. At the time, cataract surgery was performed without anesthetic. Ether and choloroform made patients vomit, an obvious problem while undergoing delicate surgery. As a result, cataract patients endured excruciating pain.

Koller dripped a cocaine solution into the eye. Patients no longer flinched when the scalpel touched their eye. Pharmaceutical companies began marketing cocaine. However, many patients died of accidental overdoses during surgery.

Sigmund Freud

Freud was an Austrian neurologist, the founder of the field of psychoanalysis.

Fascinated by cocaine, he started to experiment with the drug. After having experienced the stimulating effect, he proudly promoted cocaine to cure depression and sexual impotence. In 1884, he published and article ‘Über Coca’ (‘About Coke’). It promoted the benefits of cocaine and called it a ‘magical’ substance.

He believed that, for humans, there is a very high toxic dose of cocaine. As well, there is no lethal dose. However, one of his patients did die from a high dosage Freud prescribed.

Nonetheless, he overlooked the effect of addiction when using cocaine. He battled with the addiction for twelve years.


Cocaine and Coca-Cola

A copy of the advertisement for Pemberton's Coca-Cola, expressing the healing properties of his cocaine-infused drink.
image source: commons.wikimedia.org

Many copied Mariani’s wine-cocaine mixture.

American pharmacist John Pemberton sold ‘Pemberton’s French Coca Wine’. It was a sugary syrup, wine, and a higher amount of cocaine than the ‘Vin Mariani’. When consumed, the drink gave a euphoric and energizing effect.

It first sold in racially segregated soda fountains, popular among the white middle class.

In 1885, Pemberton reformulated the drink. He replaced the alcohol with soda water. As a result, the name changed to Coca-Cola. By 1899, it started selling in bottles. The lower class and minorities could enjoy the beverage.

The Ku Klux Klan wanted Coca-Cola banned. A rumor spread that cocaine made African-Americans ‘fiends’. It made them physically attack white men and sexually assault white women.

At the turn of the 1900s, the dangers associated with cocaine became more obvious. By 1906, ‘Vin Mariani’ and Coca-Cola were to remove the active ingredient from their drinks.

For Coca-Cola, rather than for health concerns, the likely motivation for excluding cocaine was racial bias and tightened regulations. By 1903, they removed cocaine from their drinks.


Even though cocaine was not in the drinks, there were other ways to obtain the drug.

Until 1916, Harrods sold a kit that contained cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles.

Additionally, by 1905, it became popular to snort cocaine.

By 1910, hospitals and medical statistics reported cases of nasal damage due to excessive use of cocaine.

In 1912, the United States (U.S.) government reported 5000 cocaine-related deaths in one year.

Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914

Representative Francis B. Harrison of New York introduced the Harrison Narcotics Act. It was the country’s first campaign in the war against drugs. It outlawed the sale and use of coca and opium products.

The newspapers, politicians, and physicians held their racist sentiment, which fueled support for the Act.

By 1922, the drug was officially banned.

Crack Cocaine

A photograph of two vials filled with crack, one clothes and upright and the other open and on its side, the contents spilling out on the black surface.
image source: vox.com

Crack is a crystallized form of cocaine. Its popularity rose in the 1980s.

In the 1970s, the overabundance of cocaine led to a drop in its price by 80%. It became too common to sell. Dealers turned to crack, a new way to take and sell the product.

In making crack, they dissolved powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia. Then, it boiled down until it formed a solid. Next, the solid form was broken into small chunks or ‘rocks’. It created a solid form of cocaine that could be smoked.

Its name derived from the crack sound made when broken down.

The effect of snorting powdered cocaine lasts between 15 to 30 minutes. As for crack, the effect lasts between five to 10 minutes. This short, intense high made crack more addictive than cocaine. Also, it was cheaper than cocaine.

The 1980s Crack Epidemic

The Crack Epidemic lasted between 1984 and 1990.

Crack spread across American cities.

Between 1985 and 1989, the number of regular cocaine users increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million. In addition, crime in major cities rose.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study in 1988 of New York. Crack-use tied to 32% of all homicides and 60% of all drug-related homicides.

By 1987, there were reports of crack possession in all but four states in the U.S.

Since then, crack continues to spread through North America and South America, as well as Europe and other parts of the world.

Cocaine Laws

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created a gap between crack and powdered cocaine: 100:1. Additionally, it enforced a mandatory five-year minimum sentence for any crack-cocaine possession.

Five years for every one gram of crack as to 100 grams of powdered cocaine.

However, many stood against the law and argued that it was racist. In the 1980s, most crack users were African-Americans.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 changed the weight ratio of crack and powdered cocaine to 18:1. It eliminated the mandatory five-year sentence for crack possession. It implemented a fining system. Sentencing depends on how large the amount of crack is.


Cocaine Consumption

A photograph depicting the many ways in which cocaine can be taken, whether snorted, eaten, or injected.
image source: therecoveryvillage.com


Cocaine is either snorted through the nose or rubbed into the gums.

Some dissolve the powder, heating it until liquid, and inject it into their blood stream.

For crack, it is heated to produce vapors that are inhaled into the lungs. As well, some smoke it by sprinkling it on marijuana or tobacco. Then, it is smoked like a cigarette.

Reasons for Consumption

Crack and cocaine make the user feel euphoric and positive. In addition, the user feels wide awake and very confident. When taken recreationally, it releases inhibitions. Therefore, it is easier for them to socially interact with others.

However, this high period does last longer than 30 minutes.

Users succumb to negative feelings the next day. These negative feelings motivate the users to take more cocaine, avoiding the negative feelings.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a vicious cycle. Soon, the user’s body can become resistant to the effect. It will force them to take more until they do. As well, this can lead to a  greater experience of negative feelings, resulting in a greater desire for the drug.

How Cocaine Effects the Brain

Cocaine increases the dopamine levels in the brain’s circuit. Dopamine is a natural chemical messenger in the brain that controls pleasure and reward.

Normally, dopamine recycles into the brain cell that releases it. This shuts off the signal between the nerve cells.

Cocaine prevents dopamine from being recycled. Large amounts build up in the space between the two nerve cells. Therefore, normal communication stops and there is a flood of pleasure and reward. The flood of pleasure and reward strengthens the urge for drug-taking. Users want to continue the pleasurable feeling. However, the reward sense adapts, becoming less sensitive to the drug. Users begin taking stronger and more frequent doses to continue the high.

These large doses lead to constricted blood vessels, raised body temperature and blood pressure, and a fast or irregular heartbeat. Moreover, users experience nausea, tremors, muscle twitches and restlessness. Along with dilated pupils, large amounts of cocaine lead to odd, unpredictable and violent behavior.

Short- and Long-Term Effects.

In those five to 30 minutes, the short-term effects are extreme happiness, energy and mental alertness. They appear as positive effects, hence why cocaine seems so appealing. Moreover, other common short-term effects are hypersensitivity to sight, sound, and touch; irritability and paranoia.

The long-term effects depend on the preferred method of using crack and/or cocaine.

Continuous snorting of powdered cocaine leads to a loss of smell, nosebleeds, frequent runny noses, and problems with swallowing.

Consuming cocaine by mouth results in severe bowel decay from reduced blood flow.

Injecting liquid cocaine into a vein causes a higher risk of contracting H.I.V., Hepatitis C and other bloodborne diseases. As well, it causes skin or soft tissue infections, scarring and/or collapsed veins.

Cocaine Withdrawal

An image of a young woman in a rehabilitation centre, staring out of the window, coming to term with her depression as a result of her cocaine withdrawal.
image source: georgiaaddictiontreatmentcenter.com

Cocaine dependency refers to the amount taken by the user to feel euphoric or ‘normal’. This euphoria fades quickly, meaning the withdrawal symptoms start as soon as the individual stops using it. Many continue using it to avoid facing withdrawal symptoms.

The common symptoms are increase in appetite, fatigue, depression, restless behavior, nightmares, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

The symptoms start within hours of stopping and last up to a month. It is best to experience them as either an inpatient or outpatient.

In the first to third hour, individuals feel irritable, anxious, exhausted, and develop an increased appetite. However, cocaine cravings decrease during this period.

In the first week, intense cocaine cravings arise. The individual feels exhausted and yet has trouble sleeping. When they manage to sleep, they experience vivid and unpleasant dreams, as well as depressive mood swings.

Between week two and week four, former users feel depressed and the strong cocaine cravings continue. They find it hard to concentrate or stay emotionally balanced. During this period, irritability and agitation are common.

From week five to week 10, the mind and body begin to heal. The withdrawal symptoms fade away. Cocain cravings can still occur and anxiety and uneasiness will sometimes return.

Conclusion on Cocaine

A photograph of close to 50 cocaine seized from the Balkan cartel as they smuggled into Europ.
Police from eight European countries busted the Balkan Cartel. image source: euronews.com

The coca leaves and their effects were part of an ancient culture. We might not know how it affected the people long-term, but we understand that they saw the leaves as sacred. It was part of their rituals and daily life. Incas living in the Andes used the leaves to survive the thin air.

Thousands of years later, it faces the world in a never-ending war on drugs.

People seek illegal substances to be rid of their negativity, only wanting to experience true happiness for less than 30 minutes. At the same time, they forget the negative effects after abusing the substances. It affects their brain and body, making them dependent on either powder or pieces of rock. As well, it leads to accidental or planned overdoses. There are continuous police raids, from basements to warehouses.

In the end, the use of cocaine and crack started and will conclude with the user. If the user realizes the damage they are doing to themselves, they will find the help they need to be rid of this addiction.


“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

-Mahatma Ghandhi.

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