The History of Cocaine
Cocaine is derived from the coca plant, a South American plant that has been used at least for several thousand years by human beings to achieve an energetic high. In the 1850s, European scientists learned they could isolate cocaine from this plant, creating a stimulant and painkiller that was initially viewed extremely favorably by the medical community.
Despite what we would later learn about cocaine, it did have legitimate medical uses and still is sometimes used in a medical context today. For example, in an age before modern surgical anesthetics, cocaine had some major advantages over ether and chloroform, two of the most common anesthetics used at that time, which could cause nausea and make a patient vomit during delicate operations.
To understand the pervasiveness of the belief that cocaine was a sort of “wonder drug,” note that in 1886, Coca-Cola was founded and sold a beverage that combined cocaine and syrup. By 1899, it was selling a cocaine-infused beverage in bottles. Cocaine was only removed from the drink in 1903, and even then, this wasn’t necessarily over health concerns.
It was only in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 that cocaine really started to become regulated on the level we typically associate with a drug of its strength, as people started to recognize the dangers of the drug. Unfortunately, this is also one of the earliest actions where cocaine started to be used as a racist political tool, with many powerful regulators, doctors, and more pushing the narrative of Black cocaine users specifically representing a unique danger to the country.
This type of sentiment continued for decades and even into today, with crack cocaine use surging in the 1980s, especially in cities. Extremely harsh penalties were developed for crack cocaine possession and use compared to powdered cocaine. Many claim this was because crack cocaine was more heavily used by Black communities, and these laws made it easier to suppress people in those communities.
These laws would only be relaxed somewhat with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, with many still saying the sentencing disparity between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine possession does not align with science.
How Is Cocaine Made?
Cocaine is derived from the coca plant, which is itself a stimulant that has been chewed and ingested by people living in areas where it grows for thousands of years. It is still sometimes used that way, especially by people engaging in hard manual labor (although this practice is generally considered to have similar dangers to cocaine use by medical experts).
Cocaine is made by synthesizing the purified chemical, cocaine hydrochloride, from this plant.
What Does It Mean to Cut Cocaine?
Cocaine is a white powder and easily cut with other substances. “Cutting cocaine” is the practice of mixing cocaine with substances, often without a buyer’s knowledge, to make selling the drug more profitable or enhance its effect in some way, such as to make it more addictive.
This practice is extremely common. It is why many people engaging in black market sales focus on drug purity, with purer cocaine usually being viewed as a superior product.
It should be noted that pure cocaine is still an addictive stimulant and isn’t “safe,” even if some of the substances used to cut cocaine can indeed make the drug more dangerous.
Common Ingredients Used to Cut Cocaine
A variety of non-psychoactive substances are sometimes used to cut cocaine, with almost any substance that looks like a white powder and might be difficult to detect when mixed with cocaine possibly used.
Some of the most common non-psychoactive substances used to cut cocaine include the following:
- Talcum powder
- Baking soda
Sometimes, other drugs are mixed with cocaine, usually to intensify its effect or make it more addictive. Substances used for this purpose include the following:
- Procaine, an anesthetic
- Opioids, including heroin and fentanyl
Fentanyl & Carfentanil: Fake Cocaine?
Two substances sometimes used to cut cocaine, or that are potentially even sold as cocaine without cocaine being used in the mixture, are fentanyl (a powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid) and carfentanil (a related opioid that is so extremely potent it can be fatal in very small doses).
Cocaine mixed with these drugs has been a major problem in Florida, with the DEA noting cocaine-related fatalities were rising in strong correlation with a rise in the use of cocaine-opioid combinations, especially cocaine-fentanyl mixes.
Importantly, users of these drugs don’t necessarily know they’re not using pure cocaine. Both fentanyl and carfentanil can cause a fatal overdose in small concentrations.
Harm Reduction Tips
This section contains some harm reduction tips that can make buying and using cocaine safer. However, we want to note that even with these tips, cocaine is not a safe drug. It is a powerful stimulant and addictive.
These tips are intended to minimize the harm the drug can do, but nothing can be done to completely remove its dangers if you still regularly engage in cocaine use.
- Don’t buy from strangers. Only buy from dealers you know and believe you can trust, keeping in mind that you likely can’t truly drug someone illegally selling drugs.
- Plan where you will use cocaine, so you can be in a safe place for the duration of your high.
- Learn the signs of a cocaine overdose, as well as an opioid overdose. Have a naloxone kit on hand, which is a drug that can reverse the effects of the opioids often used to cut cocaine. This could save a life in the case of opioid overdose.
- Stay hydrated when engaging in cocaine use.
- Finely grind your cocaine to reduce its potential to harm your nasal passage.
- Bring your own equipment to snort or inject cocaine, reducing the chance of getting a transmissible infection from other users.
There are also some things you should never do when using cocaine, including these:
- Never use the drug alone, as this means you cannot get help if you have a medical emergency and are incapacitated.
- Never engage in polydrug use, which is the use of multiple drugs at once, including the use of alcohol with cocaine.
- Never use cocaine if you have a family history of heart problems or know you have issues with your heart health, as cocaine can have powerful effects on the heart.
When you buy cocaine, it is wise to also get it tested, either from harm reduction services or with drug testing kits that are available online. One of the main things these tests often do is check for the presence of fentanyl, which can easily cause an overdose if you’re not aware it is mixed into the drugs you’re taking.
If you detect fentanyl in cocaine, discard the batch. The risk of a fatal overdose is too high.
- Cocaine. (May 2017). A&E Television Networks.
- (U) Deadly Contaminated Cocaine Widespread in Florida. (February 2018). Drug Enforcement Administration.
- Safer Cocaine Use. Algonquin College.
- What Is Cocaine? (May 2016). National Institute on Drug Abuse.