South American indigenous peoples have chewed the coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca), a plant that contains vital nutrients as well as numerous alkaloids, including cocaine. The leaf was, and is, chewed almost universally by some indigenous communities—ancient Peruvian mummies have been found with the remains of coca leaves. However, it should be noted that there is no evidence that its habitual use has ever led to any of the negative consequences generally associated with habitual cocaine use today.
When the Spaniards colonized South America, they at first ignored aboriginal claims that the leaf gave them strength and energy, and declared the practice of chewing it the work of the Devil. But after discovering that these claims were true, they legalized and taxed the leaf, taking 10 percent off the value of each crop. These taxes were for a time the main source of support for the Roman Catholic Church in the region.
The cocaine alkaloid was first isolated by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855.
In 1859 Albert Niemann, a Ph.D. student at the University of Göttingen in Germany developed an improved purification process. He named the alkaloid “cocaine”.
In 1879 cocaine began to be used to treat morphine addiction. Cocaine was introduced into clinical use as a local anaesthetic in Germany in 1884.
In 1885 the U.S. manufacturer Parke-Davis sold cocaine in various forms, including cigarettes, powder, and even a cocaine mixture that could be injected directly into the user’s veins with the included needle. The company promised that its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and ... render the sufferer insensitive to pain.”
By the turn of the twentieth century, the addictive properties of cocaine had become clear to many, and the problem of cocaine abuse began to capture public attention in the United States.
In 1914 the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act outlawed the use of cocaine in the United States. This law incorrectly referred to cocaine as a narcotic, and the misclassification passed into popular culture. Cocaine is a stimulant, not a narcotic.
Today, Cocaine in its various forms comes in second only to cannabis as the most popular illegal recreational drug in the United States, and is number one in street value sold each year, exceeding $35 billion in 2003.