According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), cocaine (benzoylmethylecgonine) is an extremely potent stimulant substance. It is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is indigenous to many countries in Central America and South America.

Cocaine is a significant drug of abuse. Street forms of cocaine have numerous additives.

The drug has a long history of use and abuse in the United States.

An Old Drug

Per the book A Brief History of Cocaine, it is believed that before the birth of Christ, members of the indigenous tribes in South America chewed the leaves of the coca plant to help them adjust to living at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains.

The stimulant properties of the drug kept their heartbeats and breathing rates at a higher level, allowing them to live in the very thin air.

Cocaine was used during the religious ceremonies of Peruvian Indians in the 1500s. When the Spanish conquered them and forced them to work in the silver mines, the drug was used to make them more efficient workers and to exploit them.

Other South American indigenous peoples were known to chew the leaves of the coca plant to enhance their energy levels.

Freud and Cocaine

Sigmund Freud, one of the most significant figures in history, was one of the first Europeans to promote the use of cocaine, as he used it himself for a short time. Records suggest he may have also prescribed the drug to some of his patients before finally deciding that it was potentially dangerous.

The Coke in Coca-Cola

In the late 1800s, the new soft drink Coca-Cola actually contained cocaine extracted from coca leaves as one of its ingredients. This new drink helped to increase the popularity of cocaine.

Before the drug was eventually made illegal for private use, many elixirs included cocaine as an ingredient.

Notable historical figures like Thomas Edison are reputed to have used the drug regularly.

Made Illegal

In the early 1900s, the detrimental effects of cocaine were recognized. By 1922, it was officially banned for private use.

However, the drug remained popular with certain subcultures such as musicians. In the 1970s, it reemerged as a fashionable drug used by celebrities and people in business for its energy-producing properties.

In the 1980s, it was one of the major drugs of abuse in the United States.

A Glamorous Drug Becomes More Available

In the 1970s to 1980s, cocaine was still considered to be more of an elitist drug, mostly used by wealthier individuals. However, the development of crack cocaine provided a much cheaper form of the drug that helped it to become a major drug of abuse.

In the 1980s, a crackdown on drug smuggling began to hurt the cocaine industry, although the drug was still smuggled into the United States. Cocaine also lost some of its glamour and popularity due to expensive campaigns by the government to make its use appeared to be less desirable.

Its status as a drug of abuse declined significantly with the rise in abuse of prescription medications.

Today, cocaine is experiencing a bit of a reemergence due to the crackdown on prescription pain medication abuse. It remains a significant drug of abuse.

Two Basic Forms

NIDA reports that cocaine is most commonly abused in two forms.

  • Powdered cocaine: This hydrochloride salt form is water-soluble. It is most often abused by snorting the drug or mixing it with water and injecting it.
  • Crack cocaine: This freebase form is manufactured by processing the cocaine with ammonia and water or with baking soda. Then, it is heated to remove the hydrochloride part of the substance. This form is typically smoked.

The General Process Used to Extract Cocaine from the Coca Leaves

The coca plant has been cultivated for thousands of years, and the cocaine business is a billion-dollar business.

Laboratories scattered throughout Central and South America process the drug in this way:

  • The leaves are harvested from the coca plant.
  • They are placed in large metal drums and covered with gasoline to extract the coca or placed in sulfuric acid to turn the leaves into cocaine sulfate.
  • The drums are drained, and the mixture is diluted with acid. Later, sodium bicarbonate or ammonia is added to the substance. It is filtered through a cloth.
  • The substance is then dried.
  • A solvent like ether, acetone, or some other solvent is added to the substance. Then, it is heated, and other solvents are added, which eventually result in the substance crystallizing when it is cool.
  • The solvents are removed, and the substance is dried into bricks, typically using an oven or microwave.

Forms of crack cocaine are further processed as described above. Cocaine that you purchase on the street is significantly adulterated from the form that is produced in laboratories across Central and South America.

Medicinal Use

The use of cocaine for medical reasons remains limited. It is primarily used as a local anesthetic or vasodilator particularly, for dental surgery purposes.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies it as a C II or Schedule II controlled substance. This means that it does have some medical uses, but it is considered a drug of abuse that results in physical dependence if used over time.

Its medical use is limited to clinics and hospitals. You most likely are not going to get a prescription for cocaine from your doctor.

Street Cocaine is Different from Medicinal Cocaine

The cocaine marketed on the street is significantly different from the cocaine that is used for medicinal purposes. Street dealers cut the drug to increase their profits.

According to NIDA and the DEA, cocaine purchased illicitly for personal use contains numerous additives.

  • Baking soda is the most common additive in street cocaine.
  • Other white powders, like talcum powder, sugar, powdered milk, cornstarch, and other common over-the-counter products, are used.
  • Drugs that will also produce numbness — such as benzocaine, procaine, lidocaine, mannitol, and others — are used to promote the sensation that the cocaine is actually purer than it really is.
  • Amphetamines like methamphetamine may be added, as these are often less expensive than cocaine itself and can enhance stimulant effects.
  • Drugs such as boric acid or Ergamisol (levamisole, a drug used to kill parasitic worms) may be used.
  • Rare instances of cocaine being diluted with powdered bleach or even poisons have been recorded, but these are relatively rare.

Obviously, many of the substances can be potentially dangerous, and others are relatively harmless.

Buy at Your Own Risk

The cocaine that is sold on the street for illicit use is notoriously diluted compared to the purity of the drug that is imported into the country. Estimates range from the drug being 20 to 65 percent pure.

When you buy any drug from an illicit dealer, there is no quality control or government standards used in the manufacture and distribution of the drug. You are literally buying it at your own risk. There have been many cases of poisoning recorded as a result of street cocaine use.

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