Cocaine Technology

Technology has been pivotal in some of the transition points of cocaine use. Throughout history, despite the long time periods involved, there have been constant “upgrades” in the method of preparing cocaine for use, each time resulting in a more powerful stimulant, or a more effective method of use. In a discussion not connected to social forces or the regulation of cocaine, we can see in the table below that two of the main periods of cocaine epidemics correspond to technological advancement, either in the introduction of a more powerful form of the drug, or the invention of a more powerful substitute.

The technologies associated with the development of cocaine are only one way of viewing the way cocaine has been used over history. There are technologies associated with the illicit drug trade, which have developed over the past 100 years and have had an impact at every level of the supply chain, allowing the growing global distribution and the creation of new markets. Similarly, advances in technology are always improving law enforcement in the constant battle to curb the trade, in a sort of cat and mouse game. At the local level, advances in medical technology help in the understanding of addiction and drug use prevention and treatment.


Ceramic fragment from Valdivia culture which represents a face with a lump in the cheek of the coca chewer Pre 3000BC

Early in the development of the human/coca relationship, the leaves of the coca plant may have been eaten as a food, and their useful properties would have been discovered by eating the coca leaves. At some point, a method was adopted to enhance the effects of the coca leaf. The ancient method of Andean cocaine use involved folding coca leaves into a “quid” and placing it between the teeth and the inside of the check. An alkaline substance such as powdered wood ash or baked and powdered seashells is then transferred into the quid using a silver awl or pointed tube of limestone. This releases more of the psychoactive component of the leaf. Artefacts such as lime pots date back to 7000BC.

Gourd Lime Pots - Pre Inca

Coca was domesticated by 3000BC. This is evident from the spread and distribution of coastal and highland species of coca. Domestication allowed continuity of supply for trade, nutrition, medicine and social rituals.In this period, there is evidence of the use of coca leaf liquid compounds which were used in surgery, such as traditional cranial shaping.

Inca Child Mummy: Sacrificial girl, found with coca leaves

Inca use of coca included widespread cultivation and uses in medicine, daily life, trade, boosting worker productivity and religious ritual. Traditional uses remained even after Spanish settlement.

Hypodermic Syringe - Parke Davis

Parke Davis Cocaine Tablets for the Medicine Cabinet

Spanish further developed coca agribusiness, were aware of the healing and stimulant properties of coca, but it’s use stayed confined to South America for 300 years, partly because the leaf could not withstand the sea voyage to Europe.1863, Angelo Mariani, a Corsican chemist mixed Bordeaux wine with coca leaves. The ethanol acted as a solvent to release the alkaloid from the leaf. The product of his experimentation was Vin Mariani. The diminished strength of the imported leaves was enhanced by the solvent effect of the alcohol and the additional effect of the alcohol on the drinker. It was the first of many such stimulant tonics.1853 Invention of hypodermic syringe

1860, German chemist Albert Neimann, isolates the cocaine alkaloid.

1862, Merck (Germany) produces small amounts of cocaine, by 1875, Parke-Davis (US) produces commercial quantity.

Sigmund Freud uses cocaine in therapeutic setting and discovers its stimulant, euphoric and addictive properties.

1884 Carl Koller published use of cocaine as anaesthetic in ophthalmic surgery

1885, Cocaine commercially available. Parke-Davis markets cocaine in the form of cigarettes, powders, syrups and even in a mixture that could be injected intravenously.

1890 Benzocaine synthesised by German chemist, Eduard Ritsert. Synthetic alternative for cocaine as local anaesthetic.



Smoking Crack Cocaine

1927, amphetamine synthesized, legal, inexpensive more powerful substitute for cocaine.Late 1960s – period of high drug use, heroine epidemic, LSD emerges, amphetamines become restricted drug and cocaine makes a comeback.1985 Crack cocaine appears

Cocaine Epidemic 1970s-1990s, peak in the late 1980s

The story of cocaine trafficking is several volumes in itself, and whilst it is not our focus, it is worthy of mention as advances in technology are a major factor in the maintenance and spread of supply of cocaine to global markets in the face of a multibillion dollar war to stop it.

In every facet of the supply chain, from grower to consumer, advances in technology over the past century have managed to keep the industry one step ahead of international efforts to thwart it. Since the 1970s the most violent and sophisticated drug trafficking organisations have emerged from Colombia and Mexico. What was a small smuggling business after a 30 year “drought” of cocaine, has emerged as an enormous multinational empire. In the ‘70s, small time traffickers of marijuana included cocaine in their suitcases. Today, they move around 900 tonnes globally per year, with ever growing sophistication. With huge profits to invest in the most up to date technology, cartels are often better equipped than the agencies they are seeking to outrun.

Some technology facts:

In the agricultural sector, advanced technology is used to improve harvests and obtain better yields and to neutralise the effects of aerial herbicide spraying. The development of pest resistant plants also increases yields required to compensate for destroyed crops. At the growing phase, recycling of chemical precursors, which are also restricted, has been improved through technology.

Encryption systems and wireless intercept equipment is employed to conceal communications and disguise the content of conversations.

High tech computer and communications systems have facilitated the rapid expansion of the trade. Globalization of financial systems has allowed money laundering around the world electronically due to minimal national controls. Smuggling via air, sea, post and couriers has been improved by the employment of specialized aircraft and mini submarines designed by engineering experts from Russia and the US.

Similarly, countermeasures by international drug agencies require ever improving technology.