While cocaine was first synthesized in 1856, it did not become widely commercially available until the early 20th century.

Coca Cola even used small amounts of cocaine in its beverage from 1886-1900. Yet, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the drug became increasingly used and abused through sniffing, cigarette and injectable forms. The pharmaceutical company, Parke-Davis, actually marketed the drug as something that could ‘supply the place of food, make the coward brave…and render the sufferer insensitive to pain’.

In the early 1900s, both cocaine and morphine were primarily prescribed and sold by pharmacists, and sold as patent medicines in small doses without a prescription. Cocaine became a popular tonic for hay fever, sinusitis and was even used to treat morphine, opium and alcohol addiction. Morphine derivatives like laudanum that contained 10% opium were used as analgesics, cough medicines and even as baby soothing syrups.

Equally important at the time, and often overlooked when considering the evolution of drug control, was the rising Temperance Movement for alcohol. In a similar way to how marijuana is gradually being legalized on a state-by-state basis today, the gradual ban of alcohol occurred one state at a time and ultimately led to its national prohibition in 1920 through the 18th Amendment, being repealed under the 21st Amendment in 1933.

Already by 1900, an estimated 2-5% of the U.S. population was addicted to drugs although it is difficult to completely rely on the accuracy such statistics taken the time. As with alcohol, individual states increasingly began to curb the sale of cocaine and morphine for non-medicinal use, but they lacked sufficient resources to enforce the laws.

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Posted by Anaïs Faure