Cocaine is an addictive, Schedule II drug. This means it is classified as addictive and can be abused, however in some cases (mostly severe and/or rare), cocaine can be used in medical facilities for treatment or pain relief.Last updated: June 1, 2018
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a stimulant that prevents the recycling of dopamine in the brain. When dopamine is released, it occupies a small space between synapses, giving you a high. However, it seldom lasts for long because then a protein comes along and removes the dopamine to be recycled for later use. For example, take the allure of a fragrant meal. Dopamine is released, creating a pleasurable sensation, but that sensation fades as the dopamine is recycled/removed, making that reward – or instant gratification – fade. What cocaine does is prevent the proteins from recycling dopamine. Not only do you continue to be drawn by the fragrant smell of food, but the sensation intensifies. Because dopamine is not recycled, instead of one floating between the two synapses, now you have two; then three; then four… and so on.
So if a meal smells good, it continues to smell better. This is what keeps that heightened sense of alertness and euphoria.
What is in Cocaine?
In its purest form, cocaine is an alkaloid, a naturally occurring chemical compound, produced by the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca) from South America.
However, in the United States, cocaine is an illegal street drug that comes in a variety of forms: pill, water, powder, rocks, etc. A cut of cocaine can be infused with:
- Baking soda
- Talcum powder
- Laundry detergent
- Boric acid
- Local anesthetics (procaine, tetracaine, etc.)
The primary reason many of these are added is to increase profits and cut costs as things like baking soda and talcum powder are very easy (and affordable) to come by. However, some of these have the added bonus of increasing the duration of the drug and others have the ability to make the drug more addictive.
Alternative names for Cocaine
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History of Cocaine
Cocaine has been around for thousands of years, used as part of a religious ritual for many indigenous South American peoples. Cocaine was produced in the leaves of the coca plant and during ceremonies, the people would chew the leaves to give them a boost of energy and strength.
In the late 1400s and into the 1500s, when the Spanish began colonizing the Americas. They were introduced to the coca plant, its effects, and how it worked in conjunction with tobacco. Almost immediately, the Spanish legalized and put a tax on the plant.
Cocaine was then used in by both cultures for surgeries, treatments, and even to heighten the senses before a hunt or battle.
Cocaine as we know it today, wasn’t developed until the mid-1800s. This was partially due to a lack of knowledge and technology – being unable to draw the alkaloid out of the leaf – but mostly because the only means of transporting the plant to Europe – where the chief scientists were – was by boat. Although samples did make the voyage, many degraded by the time they reached Europe.
Friedrich Gaedcke first isolated the cocaine alkaloid in 1855. He named it “erythroxyline.” He identified this component but could not extract it easily.
However, it was another Friedrich (Friedrich Wöhler) who aided in cocaine becoming what it is today. Wöhler ordered some coca leaves to be brought back from South America from a fellow scientist aboard the Novara expedition and he actually received a large trunk full of coca plants. Wöhler handed many of the plants off to one of his graduate students, Albert Neimann. Neimann managed to isolate (and name) cocaine, extracting it from the coca plant, and improving Gaedcke’s method. Niemann managed to do this in 1859, published his paper On a New Organic Base in the Coca Leaves, in 1860 and earned his Ph.D. as a result. A year later, in 1861, Neimann died in his ongoing research with sulfur mustard – seemingly from inhalation of the gas.
Then in 1898, Richard Willstätter managed the first biomimetic synthesis of cocaine.
Experimental Use of Cocaine
Concurrently with the extracting of cocaine, experiments using cocaine were also being done to witness the side effects.
In 1879, Vassili von Anrep created several experiments showcasing the anesthesia quality of cocaine. With frog’s in particular, he created an experiment where he dipped one paw in salt water solution and the other in a cocaine-infused salt solution to see if they had different effects. He heated up the water and the paw with cocaine seemed to experience a weakened effect or no effect at all (compared to the other paw). This numbness effect was replicated as Anrep noticed that when he injected a leg with cocaine, the affected area does not feel pain (like a pinprick).
An associate of Signmund Freud’s, Karl Koller is famously known for his cocaine experiment in 1884, wherein he applied a cocaine solution to one of his own eyes and then proceeded to prick it with pins. He was familiar with its abilities to numb tissue, but he recognized the potential since, up until this point, performing eye surgery was extraordinarily difficult due to the natural reflexes of the body. Even other drugs such as morphine could not stop the involuntary movements. The fact that cocaine numbed the tissue around the eye meant wonders.
This trend of finding medical uses continued well into the 1900s as cocaine was continued to be used for anesthesia for a variety of issues.
Recreational Cocaine Use
Many people know the story of Coca-Cola and how the original recipe included a pinch of coca leaves – up until 1906 – but the Coca-Cola was hardly the first to do so. Wines had to compete and many started the coca sensation adding as much as 6mg of cocaine per ounce of wine.
Sigmund Freud also encouraged people to use cocaine instead, publishing a document saying that cocaine makes people feel normal and happy as opposed to dour and depressed from alcohol. Freud appeared to champion the idea, clearly stating that it helps with productivity without feeling any kind of fatigue.
America’s oldest and largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, Parke-Davis sold cocaine in various forms to the public. Their advertising went so far as to say that it would: “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” Parke-Davis Company, 1885
One of their products, even featured a cocaine solution, complete with a syringe so the buyer could inject it directly into their veins.
Meanwhile, in popular culture, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – author of Sherlock Holmes – had the character (Holmes) take cocaine to get rid of his boredom. This may have aided in the social class distinctions as snuff boxes became a sign of wealth and stature.
Cocaine Use Today
Cocaine is still illegal, and rarely used in medical facilities, but the recreational form is especially prevalent. In 2005, cocaine was estimated to be a $70 billion a year industry. For some perspective, that trumps Starbucks.
Cocaine is immensely popular, and is one of the few drugs that’s used across all social strata. Whether someone is in a low-income area, middle-class, or upper-class, cocaine use is fairly even across the board.
One of the especially challenging things about cocaine in today’s economy however is how much more dangerous it is today. Frequently cocaine is cut with other additives or drugs to give a different high. This can change the side effects from simply being negative to catastrophic.