While the recreational use of coca leaves as a cultural practice dates back thousands of years, the extraction of cocaine in 1859 ultimately spawned an epidemic of abuse and addiction that’s ensnared millions. Cocaine was initially meant to serve as an anesthetic for medical purposes, but the social issue of addiction was recognized as early as 1902, by which time there were already hundreds of thousands of people suffering from dependence on the drug.

Despite the awareness of cocaine’s dangers, as well as attempts at regulation, cocaine’s popularity continued to rise in the 1970s before peaking in the 1980s – the height of the national crack epidemic. Cocaine – which is linked to high-profile injuries, deaths of several celebrities, and countless hospitalizations of Americans – continues to be an undoubtedly notorious drug in our culture.



German chemist Albert Niemann is the first to extract cocaine from coca leaves.



Uber Coca

Sigmund Freud publishes "Uber Coca," arguing that cocaine should be used to treat morphine and alcohol abuse. Later, Freud himself would become addicted to cocaine and recount his assertions regarding the drug.



Cocaine in Coca-Cola

John Pemberton includes coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. During this time, medical use becomes exceedingly prevalent, and consumers can find cocaine as an active ingredient in many drugstore products – including tonics and toothache tablets for children.



Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914


Congress passes Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. The legislation involved "a special tax on all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves ..." The legislation came as a reaction to public fears and rising addiction rates to both opiates and cocaine.



Deadly Headline

A headline in New York Times Magazine reads: “Cocaine: The Champagne of Drugs.” Overall, media coverage in the 1970s paints cocaine as a posh, harmless drug of the rich elite and fails to cover the misery associated with the deadly substance.



Cocaine Death Rate: 4.5 per 10,000 (DAWN)
Source: Drug Abuse Warning Network


Eric Clapton, "Cocaine"


Eric Clapton releases the album Slowhand, which features the hit song “Cocaine.” The song depicts the horrors and agony of cocaine use, a drug that Clapton regretfully turned to while attempting to kick heroin. Clapton saw it as an anti-drug song, but many misinterpreted the lyrics as glorifying the drug, likely a sign of its increasing prevalence in society.



Richard Pryor Incident


Comedian Richard Pryor accidentally sets himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Following this incident, national media attention begins to shift and focus more on the overwhelmingly negative aspects of cocaine addiction rather than the glorification of the drug. The tide of public perception regarding cocaine use begins to change.




Los Angeles Herald Examiner publishes article “Free Base: What It is and Why It's Dangerous.” The article was published directly after Richard Pryor's freebasing fire incident and showed a dramatic change in media coverage.



Cocaine Death Rate: 19.1 per 10,000 (DAWN)
Source: Drug Abuse Warning Network


Height of Cocaine Abuse

10.4 million users
(National Household Survey on Drug Abuse)

National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reports 14.8% of adults, aged 18 years and older, state lifetime and past-month use of cocaine.


Death Rate Soars


New York Times publishes article “Death Rate Soars in Cocaine Cases," detailing the alarming statistics about cocaine use in America. According to the article, "the rate of cocaine-related deaths quadrupled from 1976 to 1981, while the rate of cocaine-related hospital treatment showed a sixfold increase from 1975 to 1981."



Crack Rocks the U.S.

5.8 million users
(National Household Survey on Drug Abuse)

The crack cocaine epidemic surges through U.S. cities; many media headlines about the dangers of cocaine addiction appear.



The Tragic Loss of Len Bias


Hospital emergencies increased by 110%, from 26,300 to 55,200. (DAWN)

Basketball star Len Bias dies tragically of a cocaine-related heart attack before he ever plays a game for the Boston Celtics. His death would become a reminder of the grim realities of the dangers of drug use, forever changing the public's perception that cocaine is harmless.



George H.W. Bush's War on Drugs Begins


President George H.W. Bush declares war on drugs during an address to the nation for the National Drug Control Strategy.



Drug Lord Escobar Killed


Colombian police use voice recognition technology to identify Pablo Escobar’s voice over the phone. Thanks to this, they’re able to discern his location. Police then track down Escobar at his hideout and shoot and kill him as he tries to escape.



Babies Born Addicted

According to a 1996 report from the National Pregnancy and Health Survey, approximately 45,000 infants born in the U.S. each year have been exposed prenatally to cocaine. Cocaine is the most widely used illicit drug among pregnant women, with detrimental effects to the fetus increasing the odds of malformations.



Cocaine Submarines

The Colombian government seizes 198 metric tons of cocaine in 2008 – 58% in the Pacific Ocean and 31% in the Atlantic. Many of the seizures are found on-board submarines, indicating the cartel’s increasingly advanced methods to distribute the drug due to heightened U.S. demand.


Lethal Doses

Cocaine is involved in 482,188 of the nearly 1 million visits to emergency departments involving illicit drug use.


New Generation of Coke Users

By 2008, there are approximately 1.9 million cocaine users. Of these, around 359,000 use crack. The age group with the highest rate of use is adults aged 18 to 25 – in fact, 1.5 percent of them report they’ve used cocaine in the last month. These statistics mark an increased trend of cocaine use among younger generations.



Billions in Cocaine


Customs officials intercepted two separate speed boats headed toward the U.S. containing more than 6,000 pounds of cocaine. The drugs were thought to be worth more than $575 million. In 2012, border and customs agents confiscated 59 tons of cocaine headed toward the U.S. worth more than $8.8 billion dollars



Massive NYC Cocaine Bust


New York City police seize 136 pounds of cocaine worth up to $3 million and arrest two suspected narcotics traffickers. Police and federal agents announce they seized a “staggering” load of cocaine in the Bronx, indicating the prevalence of cocaine in present day.