Cocaine: the Early Years

Isolated from coca leaves, cocaine was widely available in various products during the late 19th and early 20th century.

The leaves of the coca plant have been chewed for their mild stimulating effects by South Americans for 8,000 years. Coca leaves made their way to Europe in the 17th century but the plant became a cash crop in the mid-19th century after German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke used the leaves to isolate the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine in 1855. Cocaine is much more potent than the coca leaves on their own, and since Europeans didn’t want to be bothered to chew leaves, manufactured cocaine became quite popular as it could be sold in numerous more easily digestible forms. Cocaine was touted as “a stimulant which is peculiarly adapted to elevate the working ability of the body, without any dangerous effect.”

With the late 19th century being the golden age of patent medicines, cocaine soon found its way into a variety of “cure-all” products. It was the new wonder drug and so businesses capitalized on that. Vin Mariani was an 1860s drink that combined Bordeaux wine, brandy, sugar, and coca leaves (which became cocaine when mixed with the alcohol). It was touted as having a variety of medical benefits and became very popular. Looking to make a similar coca-based “brain tonic”, Colonel John Pemberton of Georgia made Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. After Georgia enacted local prohibition laws in 1886 he removed the alcohol and created a non-alcoholic version of the drink that became Coca-Cola (which, in 1903, removed the cocaine).

Coca infused tonics & wines made cocaine drinkable and very popular.
Toothache drops were just one of many medicines that added cocaine.

You could have cocaine in cough drops, toothache drops, cigarettes, tonics, and as a recreational drug as just straight-up powder cocaine. Cocaine was used as a local anesthetic by dentists and by optometrists (who would put cocaine drops in your eyes). As part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Ernest Shackleton and other explorers used cocaine eye drops to treat snow blindness (the cocaine probably did more harm than good). Sigmund Freud published Über Coca in which he extolled the wondrous effects of cocaine. Freud believed that cocaine could cure opioid and alcohol addiction. He would later distance himself from touting such benefits, and stopped taking cocaine, as the dangers of addiction began to be known.

Soldiers on both sides of the war were both prescribed, and self-prescribed, cocaine.


As WWI started in 1914 cocaine was still prevalent in western society. In Britain people could go to retail stores such as Harrods and buy kits titled “A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front” containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles. You could buy your loved one drugs and send them to him at the front.

The Netherlands, which was neutral in WWI, supplied cocaine to countries on both sides of the war. The Nederlandsche Cocaïnefabriek became the largest cocaine manufacturer in the world and generated enormous profits. Soldiers in the trenches were both being prescribed, and self-prescribing, cocaine for the same stimulating effects as the people at home. Theodore Aschenbrandt, a Bavarian army physician, had previously demonstrated that giving soldiers cocaine could reduce the necessary food supplies by up to 20%. The British army produced a tablet called Forced March which was a mixture of cocaine and caffeine that would give soldiers a “boost.” Shackleton took Forced March to Antarctica as well. Forced March was discontinued in 1920 because demand was “too great.”

Cocaine’s Dangers

The more that cocaine was consumed (in its many forms), the more that the dangers were exposed. It wasn’t all increased energy, sharper focus, and appetite suppression. People began to see the effects of addiction. In popular entertainment Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a drug habit of injecting cocaine from time to time, but this activity was met with disapproval from Dr. Watson.

Despite patent medicine companies paying newspapers for constant advertising space, newspapers began to report on (and sometimes sensationalized) the dangers of cocaine. Cocaine began to be associated with prostitutes & organized crime, with moral decay & societal erosion. This shifted public opinion and put in motion initiatives & laws to control cocaine (and other drugs).

Drugs have been an integral part of warfare since time immemorial. While most soldiers returning from WWI resumed their normal lives, for some the use of cocaine, morphine, and heroin had turned them into junkies. The February 12, 1916 The Times wrote that:

“… to the soldier subjected to nervous strain and hard work cocaine, once used, must become a terrible temptation. It will, for the hour, charm away his trouble, his fatigue and his anxiety; it will give him fictitious strength and vigor. But it will also, in the end, render him worthless as a soldier and a man.”

The Times, February 12, 1916

Just because the war ended in 1918 didn’t mean that a soldier’s addiction had ended.

Countries started passing laws to regulate & restrict cocaine. In the US the 1915 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act began to control the public’s access to cocaine. This was in part driven by wildly racist claims that cocaine was causing Black men to rape white women and was improving their pistol marksmanship. In the United Kingdom the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 was enacted to exert greater control over cocaine than had been done through the Defence of the Realm Act 1914. This began the West’s modern era of drug prohibition.