In the early 1500s, the Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, introduced Europeans to the Inca’s use of coca leaves.
The Andean region’s indigenous cultures had been chewing the leaf for centuries as a remedy to alleviate hunger, fatigue and sadness. While the Spanish explorers initially did not approve of its use, they quickly realized how it helped their slave laborers toil in high altitude silver mines and eventually relented. Beyond its stimulating effects, the coca leaf is rich in Vitamin B and helps to stabilize blood sugar. In the following centuries, there was a limited use of coca leaves in the U.S. and Europe, mostly in the form of teas and chewing gums.
Coca’s use would all change when a German scientist first synthesized cocaine in 1856, although it would not become commercially available as a standalone drug for another three decades. In the late 19th century, the most famous use of cocaine was in Vin Mariani, a red Bordeaux tonic wine that initially required a prescription, but which quickly became a common means to alleviate all sorts of discomforts, and was even used by Thomas Edison and Ulysses Grant. Most Americans are aware that small doses were used by Coca Cola in its beverage from 1886-1900, although the company continues to deny it to this day.
Far less known is that, at around the same time, the drug company Parke-Davis began marketing and selling the drug by itself in smoking, sniffing and injectable forms, claiming that it could ‘supply the place of food, make the coward brave…and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.’ At the turn of the 20th century, just like morphine, cocaine was sold in pharmacies with prescriptions as well as through patent medicines and it quickly became a popular remedy for hay fever and sinusitis. The father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, even experimented with cocaine and used it to treat his patients for depression, including his friend Ernst von Fleishl who unfortunately became addicted and later died of cocaine overdose. Freud later abandoned the use of cocaine and other drugs for treatment as he introduced his newly discovered therapy, psychoanalysis.
The initial euphoria proclaimed over cocaine by the medical community was replaced with growing concerns that many users became paranoid, addicted, and even violent. By 1900, there were over 250,000 drug addicts in the U.S., including cocaine, morphine and opium. In 1907, New York State sought to limit cocaine’s availability through medical prescriptions, but black market sales continued to thrive. Concerns over cocaine use by 1910 spurred President Taft to submit a report to Congress, forewarning the U.S. public that cocaine was the gravest drug problem the U.S. ever faced.
Efforts to reduce the relatively easy access of cocaine provided by doctors and through patent medicines were difficult and began to reverse only after the U.S. government effectively banned cocaine (along with opium) for non-medical use through the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. It would take a few more decades before places like New York City would see a significant reduction in cocaine abuse. In the ensuing decades, cocaine use was virtually non-existent and was confined only to certain economic elites, mainly the Hollywood crowd, while by the early 1950s amphetamines would slowly become the stimulant of choice by other fringe groups, mainly the Beatniks.