Cocaine in Society

This page traces some of the patterns of coca and cocaine use through the time periods identified as those of interest in our marcohistory timeline, through the social perspective. The social aspects of cocaine use provide the strongest drivers of cocaine use, second only to our preordained biological tendency to use some sort of psychoactive drugs. Prevailing social conditions can drive a society to use more or less drugs and determine which types of drugs are used. Society’s response to such social conditions will shape how such drug use is perceived, and ultimately how and by whom these drugs can be used.

In ancient cultures, social conditions were such that there was stable unity in the family structure which extended to governance and value systems. In times of great social change and upheaval, these safeguards to family and personal security often disappeared and drug use escalated in almost every instance. There are strong social codes of drug use that keep its use in check through tradition, ritual and shared experience, and when this framework is dismantled, usually in periods of great instability, along with an increased need for stress relief in such times, we see the pendulum of drug use swinging to an extreme. Social response often swings to the opposite extreme in an effort to restore moderation and social calm. And as we see in the following macrohistoric exploration of the changing social orders and corresponding changes in drug use patterns, it isn’t always crumbling civilizations that cause deep social trauma. The pressures of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation  can cause social stress as much as movements like individualism and globalisation.

And we can also observe that as societies become increasingly complex, there is rarely broad agreement on the response of perceived problems and how they should be dealt with. It is a gross oversimplification to jump to the obvious conclusion that society’s view of a drug is dependent on who uses it, although it may seem like that at first glance. Every aspect of drug use is so complex and interrelated with many factors, but there are always constants, the need of communities to protect the vulnerable and the quest for moderation.


Without the written record, we can only propose what the cultural role of psychoactive substances in ancient times might have been, however, it is not hard to imagine that if early humans had coevolved with psychoactive plants, there would have been widespread use and knowledge of the mind altering effects of certain specific species, as like today, taking drugs is often a shared experience. And those particular plants would have been actively sought out, and even possibly cultivated in preagriculatual communities.

There are many different theories surrounding the role of psychoactive substances in human biological and cultural evolution.

Andrew Weil, in “the Natural Mind” (z) discusses the notion of an “innate human drive to experience periodic episodes of nonordinary consciousness”, and that drugs are just one means of achieving this end.

In that context we might imagine how entranced, hallucinogenic or euphoric states of altered consciousness may have shaped the human imagination, artistic expression or spiritual awareness at both the individual and cultural level. Many psychoactive drugs were reserved for shamanic use for visionary or transformational enlightenment and so social boundaries for who did or didn’t use particular drugs and the means by which they were used, was a process of even the earliest cultures.

Jarred Diamond suggests that drug taking is part of an ancient evolutionary ritual in displaying a mastery of risk taking, and it has a role in sexual attraction and mating: “Especially in adolescence and early adulthood, the age when drug abuse is most likely to begin, we are devoting much energy to asserting our status. I suggest that we share the same unconscious instinct that leads birds to indulge in dangerous displays. Ten thousand years ago, we “displayed” by challenging a lion or a tribal enemy. Today, we do it in other ways, such as by fast driving or by consuming dangerous drugs” (za)

Wadley and Martin (zb) even go so far as to suggest that the paradox of the agricultural revolution, an unnatural step in the evolution of human culture, which often led to a lower quality of life, may have been driven by the need to cultivate foods (such as wheat and dairy) containing psychoactive substances.

The complex cultural interaction of humans and psychoactive substances was deeply embedded by the beginnings of civilization as we see its expression in shamanic cave art with depictions of hallucinogenic visions and in the archaeological record where we find wide use of drugs and practices associated with it in sculpture, ceramics, and other artefacts.

Antiquity and Traditional Coca Use

Ancient Mochen pot showing leaf chewer holding a lime ash pot

The history of coca leaf use in antiquity can only be determined through archaeology and the oral tradition of continuous Andean societies. The coca bush was domesticated around 5000 years ago, and was to Andean cultures what viticulture was to Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece.

The tradition of coca use, as today, is in the context of the other substances used at the time, included a huge array of psychoactive plants, like peyote, mescalin, cocoa and nicotine. Whilst the coca leaf had deep ritualistic and religious significance, there were many other visionary substances which had a role in shamanic practice. The coca leaf was used in ancient burial rites and to express respect and gratitude to their gods and to Mother Earth for having provided them with the means of subsistence for life to continue.

Coca held deep religious and cultural significance, a binding force between the scattered tribes of the Andes, and its use as a ritual and spiritual act was a “cultural affirmation of community trust and ethnic solidarity” and a “coveted good of social exchange” (zc). Not unlike our use of coffee and tea today, drunk in ritualistic fashion, coca leaves were chewed and drunk as a tea for social reasons as much for the physically stimulating effects they imparted. It was seen as a life companion, used at times of physical and moral exhaustion, despair and suffering, to quell the pangs of hunger, sadness and suffering.

Middle Ages

The Incan Civilization arose in the mountains of Peru in the 12thCentury and became the largest empire of pre Columbian America. The uses of coca in Incan culture were largely recorded by the invading Spaniards, as the Inca had no written language.  Coca achieved great symbolic importance in Inca culture, it was widely cultivated and took on a central religious significance. Since the drug was believed to be of divine origin even prior to the Incas, its use became a privilege reserved for members of the highest classes.

In Incan mythology, coca was created by the god Inti to mitigate the hunger and thirst of the Incas, (the descendants of the gods) so that they might endure to meet earthly demands. Having instructed the moon mother, Mama Quilla, to plant coca in humid valleys, he also ordered that only descendednts of the gods were to eat it. Indiscriminate chewing was therefore viewed as a sacrilege and although its use was restricted  it was sometimes extended as a sign of special merit to soldiers during military campaigns, workers engaged in public works projects and others judged especially deserving. (zc)

As the Incan civilization began its decline in the 15th century, many of the rules and taboos of the cultivation of coca had relaxed and by the time the conquest of Peru was completed, most of the connections with rank and privilege had disappeared and coca was freely grown and used by all classes.

Spanish Colonization of the Americas and the Early Modernity

17th Century depiction of South American natives dealing with European alcohol, it's closest analogue in their culture was a purgative, and we see it being used in this way here.

The period of Spanish colonization of the Americas was a period of intense social trauma and distress for the indigenous culture. It is through this process of great societal transformation, that the pain and suffering of being absorbed into an oppressive foreign culture was buffered to some extent by the soothing effects of psychoactives. Not only was there a huge change in the way coca was viewed and used, Europeans alcohol was also introduced with effects that were to be echoed around the world as European colonization desecrated indigenous cultures for the next several hundred years.

The Spanish viewed coca on the one hand as a symbol of Incan pagan ideolatary, which would hamper the conversion of the indigeonous people to Christianiy, whilst at the same time, they recognised it as important to their health and motivation. So they attempted to end the idolatrous use of coca whilst exploiting it to make the enslaved population more productive in the harsh and arduous conditions of the  mines and other places of work.

Coca remained a commodity of the Americas for at least 300 years, whilst other psychoactive substances were to transform the drug paradigm of Europe almost immediately. This in part was because the active properties of the coca leaf diminished during the long sea voyage to Europe, but there are perhaps stronger cultural reasons why it was not readily adopted by 16th century Europe. The Spanish quickly learned of the beneficial health properties of the coca leaves, but were repulsed by the unappealing method of chewing the leaves- it didn’t appeal to the European sensibilities of the time. The first European to record his impressions of coca chewing remarked  that “their cheeks bulged with the mysterious herb, chewed in cud like fashion” and declared them “the ugliest and most bestial people he had ever seen”.

So for various reasons, coca would not gain entry to the global drug scene until the value of its therapeutic properties were packaged into the syrups and tonics of the late 19th century, and science was able to isolate the cocaine alkaloid during the industrial heights of the 19th century.

Tea Drinkers ~ 1700

It is important, before moving on to the next transition point to take a brief look at the social changes taking place in Europe during the enlightenment. In the wake of Europe’s fascination with spices and all things exotic, there was great enthusiasm for new fashions and trends surrounding food and “soft drugs”.

Tea (from the east) and coffee (from Arabia) became social substitutes for wine and other alcoholic beverages as astringent, calorie rich and inexpensive pick me ups, which quickly settled into Eurpean ritual through coffee and tea houses. But these new drugs also attracted fear and criticism despite having the effect of increasing wisedpread abstention from alcohol. Bans were attempted on coffee, with chickory even being introduced as a substitute. Tea drinkers were described as “drinking themselves to death in mindless pursuit of fashion”. High prices and taxes aimed to discourage use.

There is a repeated pattern with all these new drugs, the same follows with tobacco. It was described as the most miraculous of the plants of the new world, it could be chewed to relieve stomach ailments, applied topically to relieve headache, as a purgative and a purifier, and a cure for asthma. Yet at the same time it was condemned as pernicious and leading the world to barbarism. It was banned in many countries, and in Russia, offending users were publicly flogged and had their noses slit. But prohibition proved unpopular and difficult to maintain, so state regulation was imposed. And so it went for opium, and later cocaine, amphetamines and a whole raft of other drugs.

Industrial Revolution

Freud was an early authority on cocaine

The cocaine alkaloid was isolated in 1859, and by the 1880’s it was being manufactured in Europe and the US. Sigmund Freud was amongst the first to publish about cocaine, then a little known drug. He was enamoured by it, and published his famed work, Über Coca after having used cocaine for just a few months. He claimed that cocaine could be used to increase a person’s physical capacity during stressful times, to restore mental capacity decreased by fatigue, to alleviate depression, to treat gastric disorders, asthma, and morphine and alcohol problems. In fact he used it to help treat his friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxzow for the symptoms of morphine withdrawal, and before long, Ernst had earned the dubious priviledge of becoming the first European cocaine addict. He suffered paranoid delusions and the formication syndrome after consuming a gram per day.(zd)

Freud tested cocaine for both Merck and Park Davis, and without question, his optimism contributed to the popularity of the drug. His often quoted descriptives leave no doubt about his initial approval of cocaine, both socially, medically and in his work. He described the immediate effects upon injection as “ a sudden exhilleration and a feeling of ease” from this “gift of nature that produced the most gorgeous excitement”. His endorsement of its use as an aphrodisiac is perhaps being alluded to in a letter to his fiancé, when he wrote “Woe to you, my Princess, when I come… you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body” and confessed to her his regular use of the drug to “supply confidence and untie my tongue”. Who would not want to try it? Is it any surprise that with his approval, its popularity soared, and that history would remember Freud as the innovator of “Talk Therapy”? One can only wonder how much we can thank cocaine for this critical development in modern psychotherapy.

Cocaine was soon an integral part of the 19th century pharmaceutical boom, sold in pharmacies as a remedy for almost any condition. There were few household medicine cabinets which would not have had some sort of tonic or elixir containing coca or cocaine. By 1881, this range included Coca Cola, a sweet, stimulating “nervine” tonic which would popularise cocaine and embed its positive image and the cultural acceptance of cocaine, before becoming not only one of the most recognised brands on the planet, but a powerful symbol of western youth, vitality and freedom.

Advertisement from 1889

By the 1890s, demand was outstripping supply as it became more widely used as an agent of pleasure. This led to a sort of cocaine gold rush with new ways discovered to fuel the demand for an epidemic that would last well into the mid 1930s.(r)

The initial difficulties of supply and the subsequent high price of cocaine kept its use largely confined to the upper and middle classes. But problems of addiction began to emerge and this began to be chronicled in the literature of the time. Sherlock Holmes, the 1890 cocaine imbibing alter ego of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had his habit scaled back by the end of the decade. (r) Robert Louis Stevenson used cocaine while writing “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. In 1910, Current Literature stated that cocaine was responsible for the smooth and flowing sentences characteristic of the period, much as the vivid emotional imagery of the Romantic poets has been attributed to their use of opium, and the hallucinogens have also inspired creativity in musicians and writers. This tendency for drug use in the arts was exploited in the marketing of cocaine as can be seen in an advertisement for Metcalf’s Wine of Coca stated: “Public speakers, Singers and Actors have found wine of coca to be a valuable tonic to the vocal cords. Athletes, Pedestrians, and Base Ball Players have found by practical experience that a steady course of coca taken both before and after any trial of strength or endurance will impart energy to every movement, and prevent fatigue. Elderly people have found it a reliable aphrodisiac superior to any other drug.”

Holmes is described in ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’ as an addict whose habit “is not dead, but merely sleeping”. This image is of the actor William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes, in a production the Garrick Theatre, New York in 1900: hyperdermic poised to inject, much to the consternation of Dr Watson.

Of the growing number of addicts, not only of cocaine, but morphine as well, many had continued their habit after being prescribed these drugs for stress relief. (ze) The not indiscriminate recommendation of cocaine in medical circles did much to fuel the epidemic. However, this should also be seen in light of the manifestation of the stresses of the day, described as “neurasthenia” a condition of nervousness seen in “brain workers”, mainly middle class professionals whose exhausting work habits depleted their nerves. Middle and upper class men were considered to be most at risk of suffering the stresses and strains of a rapidly changing industrial society, and cocaine was their saviour. For a while. Soon, cocaine was used to boost the energy of factory workers, and black workers in the docks neither who could afford needles to inject, and so began snorting cocaine.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Indulging Cocaine

So we begin to understand the social evolution of cocaine use, its initial confinement to the upper eschalons of society where it was tolerated, followed by its unleashing on the lower classes where the problems of addiction and abuse could no longer be concealed. It also gives some clues to its origins as a drug of higher status, and it was only once cocaine became the scourge of the underworld, entangled with the racial and class issues of the day, the latest addition to the menu of depravity, that the growing social temperance movements moved to have it prohibited.

20th Century

By the turn of the century, the perils of addiction were unravelling, and it is from this period that the terms “dope fiend” (referring to cocaine addicts) and “junkie” (coined to describe the addicts of New York who sold scrap to feed their habit) emerged. By 1901, the coca had disappeared from Coca Cola, new analgesics (aspirin) and synthetic local anaesthetics had replaced any medical uses for cocaine and at this time the drug had found its way into the port cities and jazz halls of the US southern states. Coke sniffing, the cheapest way to ingest the cocaine hydrochloride powder became associated with prostitution and street sellers who sold it in brown paper bags.

The “drug menace” became the target of media and medical campaigns, and by 1914, its use and sale was banned.

Now a drug of the underground, it was still widely available throughout the 1920’s where its use was associated more with musicians, actors and bohemians and “city boys whose craving for excitement was directed into forbidden channels by the social conditions under which they live.” (q)

It disappeared from use in the 1930s, but not before being immortalised in the Louis Armstrong song of 1936, “I get a Kick Out of You”

Louis Armstrong 1925

I get no kick from champagne

Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all

So tell me why should it be true

That I get a kick out of you

Some get a kick from cocaine

I’m sure that if I took even one sniff

That would bore me terrifically too

But I get a kick out of you

By the 1930s a new substitute for cocaine’s stimulant properties, amphetamine, had begun to reach the market, and this drug too followed the familiar pattern of initial medical benefits, widespread use, emergence of dangers and eventual prohibition. Amphetamine use during the second world war was prevalent on all sides, to induce fearlessness and endurance of combat troops and pilots. But its use after the war followed the same social path of abuse and addiction seen with opium, morphine and cocaine. Interestingly with the amphetamines, even though they too fell from grace in the social context, they remained widely used in therapeutic applications where the blurred lines between recreational and medicinal, legal and illicit use has ramifications extending right through to the 21stcentury.

After the cocaine epidemic ended in the 1920’s, cocaine became a marginalised drug. It was of no concern to law enforcement, seizures of the drug were almost non existent, it had disappeared from public view and even within the subculture of addictive users it was barely used as amphetamines and the new scourge of heroine abuse dominated the drug scene. It was hardly available, expensive and its euphoria was short lived compared to that of other drugs, and its use was seen as an expensive treat, used by bohemians, musicians, entertainers and a small percentage of the drug using underworld.

The cocaine revival of the 1970s had its roots in several factors, the restrictions to amphetamines, the reduction in heroine addiction through methadone substitution programmes and a sort of social amnesia about the dangers of cocaine use that had brought an end to the earlier 20th century epidemic. The baby boomers, high on hedonism and open to mind altering recreational pursuits drove the resurgence of cocaine as an easily used, exhilarating, sexually stimulating social drug, once more of the professional classes as cocaine remained expensive. Again, open endorsement of cocaine by celebrity and the media enhanced its glamorous image and its association with parties, sociability and safe, clean and excitable fun. The perils of addiction had all but been forgotten in the wake of the huge addiction problems that had arisen from the heroine epidemic. Now for a new generation it was immortalised in popular culture in Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” and flaunted by glitterati’s frontman Mick Jagger. It was further glamorised in movies and the media and adopted as the ultimate psychoactive accessory of the high fliers and the beautiful set.

Al Pacino in a bucket load of cocaine, Scarface, 1986 movie about a Cuban cocaine drug lord

But the dark side of the cocaine trade was soon to resurface, and although it’s initial widespread use didn’t cause much public concern, movies like “Scarface” and TV shows like “Miami Vice” were drawing attention to the growing underbelly of the illegal cocaine business. The emergence of the crack cocaine scenario of the mid ‘80s and the rapid escalation of crime, violence, depravity, addiction and its association with ghettos, smuggling, drug wars and international drug cartels saw public perception to cocaine rapidly shift. It was no longer seen as an expensive indulgence of the rich, but as the most dangerous drug of the era, a low cost dangerous drug of addiction for the poor. Women and children were seen as casualties, often resulting in prostitution, “crack babies”, trading of sex for drugs, and responsible for the alarming spread of HIV.

The profile of the cocaine user over the period of this second epidemic show that in the 1970s, it was the educated, wealthy adult, aged 30-35 that was 4 times more likely to use cocaine than those without a higher education, but by the late 1990s those without a higher education were about twice as likely to use the drug as their more educated counterpart. This demographic was reflected in arrest and incarceration rates which may have indicated not only the type of user, but the type of user targeted by law enforcement. (zf)