We don’t call the soft drink Coca-Cola “Coke” for nothing. The original formula contained cocaine, but how much is debatable. The beverage’s syrup was manufactured with an extract of coca leaves – it’s the leaves that contain cocaine – and the caffeine rich kola nut.
The beverage was one of several coca drinks on the market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some combined coca extract with alcohol. The combination of cocaine and alcohol produces a third drug that increases the high. These cocawines were extremely popular. So popular, a French cocawine was even a favorite of Pope Leo XIII.
Coca-Cola begun its life as just such a beverage.
The History of Coca-Cola
Dr. John Stith Pemberton, an Atlanta druggist and morphine addict, manufactured a cocawine called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. It was marketed as a cure-all for both mental and physical diseases and weaknesses.
The product was a commercial hit, but Pemberton’s company hit a snag when Fulton County, of which Atlanta is a part, went dry and the wine became illegal. Not to be sidelined, Pemberton found a replacement for the wine – a sugary syrup – and repackaged it as Coca-Cola in 1886.
In the company’s early days, the cocaine level was 4.3 milligrams per six-ounce drink, Mark Pendergast author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola says. Urban-legend-busting website Snopes says by 1902, the level was no more than one part in 50 million.
Cocaine remained part of the recipe until 1903 when company president Asa Candler ordered it greatly reduced. The company hired Maywood Chemical Works to remove the cocaine alkaloid from the coca leaves before the extract was added to the beverage. The process wasn’t perfect, however, and cocaine wasn’t completely eliminated until 1929 when it became possible to fully remove the psychoactive effects from the extract.
Decocainized coca leaf extract remained legal even after cocaine became illegal.
Coca-Cola Co. doesn’t like being asked about its cocaine past, Pendergast claims.
“Every time I go to the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, I ask the guides if Coca-Cola ever contained cocaine,” Pendergast told Salon. “They assure me that it did not. The official company line seems to be that Coca-Cola never contained added cocaine – i.e., they didn’t add white powdered cocaine, which is true. But it did contain fluid extract of coca leaf, which contains cocaine. For years, the company line has also been that the name Coca-Cola is just a ‘euphonious combination of words’ – i.e., it sounds nice. True, but the drink was also named for its two principal drug sources.”
Coca-Cola was originally marketed as a healthful drink, a nerve tonic and a energy giver. The company’s secret recipe was published in an Atlanta paper in 1891. After that, the drink was marketed as “refreshing”.
It was sold at soda fountains until 1899 when it also began being sold in bottles. Soda fountains attracted middle-class whites, and the “temperance” beverage gained a reputation as being for intellectuals and the affluent.
Society and the company soon became aware that selling Coke in bottles meant it could be purchased by poor whites and minorities.
Candler removed cocaine from the beverage in 1903, history professor Grace Elizabeth Hale contends, because whites were fearful of reports in Southern newspapers claiming “negro cocaine fiends” were sexually assaulting white women.
In April 1914, an article called “The Use of Narcotic Drugs in the South” was published in the Medical Standard. It found that hospitalizations for drug use in southern states were five to 15 times higher than in New York.
Dr. Edward Williams seems to support Hale’s hypothesis when he is quoted in the article, “The negro who has become a cocaine-doper is a constant menace to his community. His whole nature is changed for the worse …”
Williams, however, also noted that cocaine use was higher in the south than the north because of prohibition.
Cocaine for Medicinal Use
Cocaine was used widely as a pain reliever and anesthesia in dental and ophthalmology procedures. It was even used to cure seasickness.
Drugstores in New Orleans sold an average of $20-$30 of cocaine daily, according to the Times-Democrat on April 28, 1900. It was sold as a powder mixture, starch and half a grain of cocaine, costing 10 cents. Some pharmacies were selling more than 100 packets a day.
Like with today’s opioid epidemic, most addicts – referred to as cocaine fiends – started with a prescription. The drug was supposed to be sold by prescription only, but most pharmacists asked no questions and sold it to anyone who came through the door. Doctors prescribed only a few crystals per nostril, but abusers of the drug took much more.
Cocaine also was a main ingredient in patent medicines and sold as cures for headaches, colds, hay fever and catarrh (inflammation of the mucus membranes). These were labeled as harmless, and they actually did alleviate the conditions as claimed. Problem was the relief was temporary and the patient needed increasingly larger doses to achieve the same affect.
An Awareness of Cocaine Addiction
Around the turn-of-the-20th-century, it became clear that cocaine was addictive, and by 1914, doctors were advocating for the use of Novocain and ethyl chloride as safer alternatives to cocaine in medical procedures. Many felt there should be a campaign to educate the public.
“People in general should be brought to the realization of the dangers of cocaine, and any intelligent campaign against its use deserves support,” Dr. C. G. Walker told the Nebraska State Journal, Sept. 27, 1914, in response to an interview of Dr. Harry Everett, an anti-cocaine advocate. “I have seen men who had lost all moral sense and will power simply through their bondage to cocaine…”
Still doctors continued to prescribe and use cocaine either because of its convenience or because they didn’t believe of its danger. All pharmacists needed to do was not refill cocaine prescriptions, one doctor suggested, and the patient would be spared addiction.
“He makes a few generalities with no basis in fact,” Dr. A. I. McKinnon told the journal. “The doctor assumes more than his position in the profession would warrant when he presumes to dictate to the entire profession what they should and should not use in their practice.”
The Harrison Narcotic Act passed Congress in December 1914 labeled cocaine a narcotic. The act regulated and taxed the importation, production, and distribution of coca products and opiates.
Maywood Chemical Works, now known as Stepan, still produces decocainized coca leaf extract for Coca-Cola Co. The leaves appear on the packaging under the label “natural ingredients”.
The cocaine produced by the leaves is sold to pharmaceutical company Mallinckrodt which manufactures a local anesthetic from it.
Stepan imported 175,000 kilograms of coca in 2003 for Coca-Cola, according to The Atlantic, enough to manufacture more than $200 million worth of cocaine.
Updated: 27 October 2020
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