Considering the macrohistory timeline, we are able to define several distinct periods and transition points, places in history where particular factors, either alone or combined, contributed to a change in the way alcohol, cocaine or both were used. Of course, if we focus in on other temporal or spacial locations, we will almost certainly find other smaller, localised fluctuations, but in the framework of discovering big picture patterns, we are zooming out to consider more sweeping trends

Prehistory, the Evolutionary Phase


The evolutionary stage of human existence, where the adaptation to being able to use and metabolise psychoactive substances occurred from possibly the emergence of mammals 200 million years ago

Transition to Agriculture


In the transition from hunter/forager societies to the formation of civilizations, psychoactive substances have possibly played a role in religious, cultural and agricultural development in the Neolithic through their  use and through the early domestication of psychoactive plants such as coca, grape vines, wheat



In the early Egyptian, Greek, Chinese, American and Roman civilizations (and before) we find the ubiquitous use of alcohol where it is broadly tolerated, even venerated, and regulated culturally. The use of coca, also deeply embedded in its native Andean location, is also moderated through cultural means.

Transition from Antiquity, The Fall of Rome


At the end of the classical period, where Roman hegemony is in steep decline, we see the dramatic increase in the use of alcohol, along with prevailing social and cultural ills. This period of several centuries marks a distinct transition point of not just a shift in the view of alcohol and other drugs of medicine and recreation, but shifts in worldview as the Christianization of Europe spreads. The production and regulation of these substances changes in this transition.

Middle Ages

As medical practices, values, beliefs and recreation of pagan Rome are vanquished, alcohol ends up being the major psychoactive substance used in Europe for the next 1000 years. Apart from hallucinogenic native solenaceous plants (think witches), alcohol is the most powerful recreational and medicinal substance in Medieval Europe, produced and regulated by the church. Rediscovery of distillation sees the input of a technical  contribution which adds an amplification of the properties, both good and bad, of alcohol. In this period, the rise of the Inca empire results in tighter regulation of coca production and its availability is restricted

Transition to Modernity


The European colonisation of the Americas takes place in the early 16th century, changing the face of the New World, and changing the drug paradigm of Europe at the same time. The large number of psychoactive substances introduced to Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries soon become the basis for the “psychoactive revolution” of the Enlightenment.

Early Modernity


The introduction of sugar, tea, coffee and tobacco provide the foundation for great changes in social habits of the Enlightenment period. This period is characterised by the rise of secularism, the humanist movement and scientific rationalism. As culture moved from superstition to science, church monopoly to individualism and intellectual expansion, the people moved from taverns to tea and coffee houses, shifting from a culture based on depressants, to one based on stimulants. Hardly a wonder that talk and ideas were flowing freely in this period. The decline in the use of alcohol in this period was culturally and economically driven with the world trade in psychoactive substances almost rivalling the trade in gold, silver and slavery. Boiled water for coffee and tea now negated the need for alcohol as a staple beverage in a time when water was unpotable.

Transition to Industrialisation

The mid 19th century is the midst of the industrialization of Europe. Rapid changes in technology and urbanization led to the critical elements which gave birth to a psychoactive explosion. Advances in the chemical industry led not only to the isolation of the cocaine alkaloid, but also that of opium (morphine and heroin). Combined with the social pressures of sudden urbanisation, family dislocation, long working hours, overcrowding and ill health, alcohol use shot up, causing deep social issues in the working classes. Cocaine, at first the wonder drug of the 19th century, soon unleashed an epidemic of addiction and use is no longer confined to the upper and middle classes.


Turn of the 20th Century



Response to the growing scourge of cocaine and alcohol (and opium) addiction, leads to the emergence of the temperance movement in the US and cultural drives to regulate all drugs.

20th Century


The social backlash of the late 19th century, leads to prohibition of alcohol in the US, and a global prohibition of narcotics (cocaine included) in 1914. After 20 years, the prohibition of alcohol is lifted, but that of narcotics remained. Over the 20th century, alcohol use declined from its peak prior to prohibition, and has remained constant, even declining in the latter part of the century. Cocaine has appeared in epidemic proportions after great social changes in the 1960’s then again in the 1980’s as a result of the discovery of crack cocaine – crack being to cocaine what distilled spirits were to alcohol. An international “war on drugs’ has been perpetuated with little gain, for 40 years. If we zoom in on the 20th century, we see the swinging pendulum, shifting patterns of use and societal views, but we also see changes occurring with the rise and fall of other drugs and occurring in different places around the globe. Zooming back out, we can identify the 20th and early 21st centuries as still periods of great societal stress as we shift towards post industrial eras in some parts of the West, and towards greater industrialization in the developing world.