Cocaine is a drug derived from the South American coca plant (Erythoxylon coca). It is a powerful stimulant and popular recreational drug. However, there are legitimate medical uses for cocaine as a topical anesthetic used in certain head, neck and respiratory tract procedures, as well as a potent vasoconstrictor to help reduce bleeding of the mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, and throat.
Origins of Cocaine
Coca, the raw material needed to produce refined cocaine, grows wild in Central and South America and has also been cultivated there for at least 3500 years. Indigenous Americans have long recognized the plant’s stimulant effects, and coca was even considered sacred by the Incas. Today, in countries like Peru and Bolivia, many indigenous people still chew coca leaves or drink coca tea to treat fatigue and altitude sickness.
From the 1700s until the mid-1800s, there was some investigation by Western botanists regarding the possible uses for coca, and many physicians prescribed the chewing of coca leaves for conditions as varied as fatigue, depression, or sexual dysfunction. Despite this interest, the bulk of the world’s coca crop continued to be used by native populations in Central and South America.
The German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke first isolated purified cocaine, which he named “erythroxyline”, from coca leaves in 1855. In 1859, a graduate student in Germany named Albert Niemann developed an improved extraction process and renamed the substance “cocaine,” after the coca plant.
Once purified cocaine became available, it was incorporated into many different medical applications including as a remedy for cholera and a treatment for morphine addiction, plus a thousand other uses.
In 1884, a young neurologist named Sigmund Freud published a very favorable medical analysis of the drug called “Über Coca,” and his colleague Carl Koller demonstrated cocaine’s usefulness as a local anesthetic in cataract surgery. From the late 1800s into the early 1900s, cocaine was widely available in the US without any restrictions.
During this time, cocaine could be found in drug stores, either on its own or as an ingredient in various medicines, and it was also used in fortified wine and soft drinks. Coca-Cola™ contained up to 9 mg of cocaine in each bottle from its introduction in 1886 until 1903, and a cocaine-free extract of coca leaves is still used today to create this beverage’s distinct flavor.
Regulation and Prohibition
In the US in the early 20th century, popular pressure to regulate or ban the use of cocaine began to build, as the perception of cocaine changed from that of a harmless and beneficial medicine, to a dangerous and addictive vice like alcohol. This pressure resulted in Congress enacting a series of laws to regulate the use of cocaine in medicines and severely restrict its use for non-medical purposes.
Initially, labeling requirements for cocaine-containing products were enacted through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Next, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 imposed restrictions on the use of cocaine and other drugs and made it illegal for physicians to prescribe cocaine or narcotics to addicts.
Finally, the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922 forbade the importation of cocaine and cocaine-containing products. With the passage of this law, cocaine was essentially prohibited in the US for any non-medical uses, and legal sources of the drug were severely restricted.
Subsequent drug-control laws have maintained a broad prohibition on the recreational use of cocaine in all forms.
Effects on the Body and Brain
Cocaine acts as a local anesthetic by blocking sodium channels on the surface of nerve cells (neurons) that are necessary to carry nerve impulses from one end of a neuron to the other. Therefore, when cocaine is applied to a specific area of the body, such as the eye, pain-sensing nerves in the area are temporarily unable to transmit pain signals to the brain.
Cocaine was the first local anesthetic ever discovered, and many newer, safer local anesthetic drugs have been given names with the suffix “-caine,” such as procaine (Novocain) and lidocaine (Xylocaine). With so many non-addictive alternatives available, cocaine is rarely used in a medical capacity today.
When it is snorted, injected, or smoked, cocaine raises the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. The amount of dopamine in the synaptic space between neurons is normally low because neurons quickly reabsorb stray dopamine molecules through dopamine transporter proteins on their surface. However, cocaine blocks dopamine transporters, and that blockage causes the amount of dopamine in the synapse to rise.
This increased dopamine signaling in the brain is responsible for many of cocaine’s sought-after effects, including:
- Feelings of euphoria.
- Increased energy.
- Heightened self-confidence.
Cocaine’s powerful and short-lived stimulant effects are primarily responsible for this drug’s high potential for abuse. Abusers rapidly develop tolerance to cocaine’s effects, and over time they must ingest progressively larger doses of the drug more frequently in order to attain a high of similar intensity, leading to addiction and dependence.
If you find yourself unable to stop using cocaine, it’s time to get help. Speak with a caring treatment support professional who can talk you through how to get started on your road to recovery by calling (800) 943-0566
Who’s Abusing Cocaine?
When the modern surge in cocaine abuse began in the 1970s, many people considered the expensive powdered form of this drug to be glamorous and relatively safe. Recreational use was initially isolated within the relatively wealthy and prosperous segments of society.
Decreases in the price of powdered cocaine over subsequent decades and the introduction of “crack” cocaine, a cheap smokable form of the drug, expanded the illicit cocaine market into poor urban neighborhoods.
Overall use of cocaine in the US peaked during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s but over the last 10 years has since declined; however, cocaine remains the 2nd most popular illicit recreational drug in this country behind cannabis. Some important statistics about cocaine abuse include:
- According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) in 2012, nearly 4.7 million Americans aged 12 or older reported using cocaine in the past year, and almost 38 million reported ever using cocaine in their lifetime.
- The NSDUH also revealed that lifetime use of either powdered cocaine or crack was significantly higher among Whites (16.9%) than either Blacks (9.7%) or Hispanics (11.6%).
- The Monitoring the Future survey of drug use in adolescents found the rate of cocaine use among high schools seniors has fallen over the last 15 years and stood at 2.6% in 2014, the lowest percentage since the survey began in 1975.
Online Interest in Cocaine
The popularity of Internet searches including the word “cocaine” has remained fairly steady according to Google Trends. The geographical distribution of Internet searches was also fairly even across the country, with relatively more searches originating on the East and West coasts, and in the South.
These stable search numbers in recent years may reflect the fact that cocaine is well-established in the popular consciousness and there have been no significant events in the last 15 years to spark renewed interest in the drug.
The Cocaine Market
While cocaine abuse is a global phenomenon, the highest rates of consumption have been reported in:
- The Americas.
- Western Europe.
This uneven geographical distribution of recreational use in wealthier countries in part reflects the relatively high price of cocaine compared to other illicit drugs.
Today, between 70% and 80% of the world’s supply of cocaine is produced in Colombia using locally grown coca as well as supplies from Peru and Bolivia. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has estimated that Colombia produces $400 million of cocaine each week.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the US is the world’s leading consumer of cocaine, buying over $28 billion of the drug per year. However, the RAND corporation estimates that from 2006 to 2010, US cocaine consumption decreased by about 50%. Furthermore, this drop in use was specific to cocaine, as RAND estimated that cannabis consumption increased by over 30% during the same time period.
Estimates that suggest the US market for cocaine is shrinking are supported by falling statistics for the amount of cocaine seized by law enforcement since 2006.
Because the amount of illicit cocaine seized globally has increase significantly since the early 2000s, the shrinking demand for cocaine in the US does not simply reflect a decrease in the drug’s worldwide popularity but recent changes specific to this country.
One explanation proposed to explain the decreased national demand for cocaine is that the drug has gone out of fashion. Though the number of people using cocaine casually has remained stable over the years, the population of frequent, regular users is getting older and smaller over time, and the declining numbers of these habitual users has reduced overall spending on cocaine.
Rising prices for cocaine have also contributed to the declining market for this drug in the US, just as falling cocaine prices 30 years ago contributed to the huge increases in sales observed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Starting around 2007, there was a steep increase in the price of cocaine, which coincided with the decline in demand. It is thought that high prices depress demand from casual users, while those who are addicted switch to less costly substitutes, like methamphetamine, to satisfy their stimulant addiction.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy has attributed this price drop to efforts taken to reduce global cocaine supplies. These efforts include closer cooperation and support for anti-narcotics efforts by the governments of Colombia and Peru, and more effective interdiction efforts by the US Coast Guard and other agencies, which have reduced the amount of cocaine reaching the US.
In fact, the amount of cocaine seized in the US and at its borders has fallen, even as global seizures of the drug have risen, suggesting that low demand and effective anti-smuggling efforts have caused groups involved in international cocaine trafficking to shift their efforts elsewhere.
Is Cocaine Illegal?
The DEA currently lists cocaine as a Schedule II controlled substance. This category includes drugs that have recognized medical uses but also present a high risk for abuse. Other drugs listed in Schedule II include:
- Prescription amphetamines.
The DEA sets annual “production quotas” to restrict the amount of Schedule I and Schedule II drugs that can be legally produced or imported for legitimate research and medical purposes. Although there has been some variation, the quota for cocaine has never exceeded 290 kilograms per year in the last decade, or less than 1/3 of a metric ton. That amount is less than 0.2% of the 145 metric tons of cocaine consumed in the US in 2010.
Legal Penalties of Using Cocaine
Physicians, pharmacists, and researchers must obtain licenses to possess and dispense cocaine and keep strict records for law-enforcement. Aside from narrowly defined medical and research purposes, possession of cocaine is strictly prohibited.
- The federal penalty for a first-time offense of powdered cocaine possession can be up to 1 year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both, (Penalties are higher for subsequent offenses.)
- Penalties may be higher for an equivalent amount of crack cocaine than the powdered form, though drug-sentencing reforms have begun to address this discrepancy.
In addition to federal charges, most states also have laws outlawing the possession and sale of cocaine. These laws may result in additional penalties for users depending on the state in which they are charged.
How Dangerous Is Cocaine?
Though considered relatively benign by many people, cocaine use can cause many unpleasant and potentially dangerous effects. With excessive or frequent use, this drug can cause:
- Rapid heartbeat.
Ingesting an overdose of cocaine can lead to potentially lethal complications including cardiac arrhythmias or hyperthermia (elevated body temperature).
Chronic use of cocaine increases the risk of:
- Heart attack.
- Depression or other mood disorders brought on by chronic elevation of dopamine in the brain.
Insufflating (snorting) the powdered form of cocaine leaves a residue of hydrochloric acid in the nasal cavity, and over time this can damage and degrade the cartilage between the nostrils.
Chronic crack smoking can damage the lungs and result in abusers coughing up blood.
The greatest danger of cocaine use lies in its potential for dependence and addiction. Like all other chemical addictions, dependence on cocaine causes individuals to continue using despite negative consequences on their personal lives and finances. Furthermore, attempts to stop taking cocaine can lead to anxiety, panic, or depression in an addicted person, leading to an increased risk of suicide or other harmful behaviors.
- DEA Museum website – Coca history
- DrugFacts: Cocaine | National Institute of Drug Abuse
- DEA Drug Data Sheet: Cocaine
- Central Intelligence Agency website. The World Factbook. Field listing: Illicit drugs.
- National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) 2012 and 2013
- Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2014
- Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Survey Shows Significant Drop in Worldwide Cocaine Production.” Whitehouse.gov