Cocaine has been around for millennia. However, for thousands of years, it only existed in its plant form; coca. The ancient Incas chewed the leaves of the coca plant to counter the effects of living at high altitudes since the drug could increase their heart beats and breathing rate. The early Peruvians also chewed the leaves but they only did this during religious ceremonies. This was however stopped by the invasion of Peru by Spanish soldiers. In Spanish silver mines, the Indian labourers would be given coca leaves as it made it easier to control them.
In 1859, cocaine was extracted from coca leaves for the first time ever. This was done by Albert Niemann, a German chemist. However, it would take a few decades before the drug started to gain popularity among members of the medical community. One of the main promoters of cocaine as a cure for sexual dysfunction and depression was renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He used the drug himself and published an article in 1884 that explained the benefits of using the drug. He even referred to it as a magical substance. However, since he was also a user, Freud wasn’t the most objective person to turn to on the subject.
The drug became even more popular when it was added to a new soft drink, Coca-Cola. The drink became immensely popular due to the euphoric effects it had on the users who also felt energized. There were many wines, tonics and elixirs that were lased with cocaine from the 1850s and these were used by people from all walks of life. Thomas Edison and Sarah Bernhardt are among those who swore by the effects of these elixirs and tonics. In the silent film industry, the drug was very popular and this influenced many viewers as well.
The dangers of the drug were however becoming evident and Coca-Cola soon took the drug out of the soft drink in 1903, bowing to public pressure. Snorting cocaine had become popular by 1905 and in the next five years, hospitals were recording nasal damage that had come from snorting of the drug. In 1912, the U.S. government reported that there were 5,000 deaths as a result of cocaine in just a single year. The drug was banned by 1922. However, this wasn’t the end of the drug.
Cocaine would gain centre-stage once more in the 70s as it became popular among businesspersons and people in the entertainment industry. For people with such busy lifestyles, the drug’s ‘energising effect seemed to be a good match. More students were also experimenting with the drug in universities in the country in the that decade. This was also the time during which drug traffickers from Colombia set up the networks that would be used to smuggle the drug into the country.
Cocaine wasn’t just a rich man drug by the late 80s. It had gained a reputation as the most dangerous drug and was associated with death, crime and poverty. By the early 90s, exports from Colombia ranged from 500 to 800 tonnes annually. These drug rings would, however, be dismantled in the mid-90s.