Cocaine is extracted from the COCA PLANT (Erythroxylon coca), a shrub now found mainly in the Andean highlands and the northwestern parts of the Amazon in South America. The history of coca plant use by the cultures and civilizations who lived in these areas (including the Inca) goes back more than a thousand years, with evidence of use found archeologically in their burial sites. The Inca called the plant a "gift of the Sun god'' and believed that the leaf had supernatural powers. They used the leaves much as the highland Indians of South America do today. A wad of leaves, along with some ash, is placed in the mouth and both chewed and sucked. The ash helps in the extraction of the cocaine from the coca leaf—and the cocaine is efficiently absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth.

Cocaine is usually distributed as a white crystalline powder, usually cocaine hydrocholride, that is often diluted with a variety of substances—sugars such as lactose, inositol and mannitol, and local anesthetics such as lidocaine. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

During the height of the Inca Empire (11th-15th centuries) coca leaves were reserved for the nobility and for religious ceremonies, since it was believed that coca was of divine origin. With the conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spanish in the 1500s, coca use was banned. The Conquistadors soon discovered, however, that their Indian slaves worked harder and required less food if they were allowed to chew coca. The Catholic church began to cultivate coca plants, and in many cases the Indians were paid in coca leaves.

Although glowing reports of the stimulant effects of coca reached Europe, coca use did not achieve popularity. This was no doubt related to the fact that coca plants could not be grown in Europe and the active ingredient in the coca leaves did not survive the long ocean voyage from South America. After the isolation of cocaine from coca leaves by the German chemist Albert Niemann in 1860 and the subsequent purification of the drug, it became more popular. It was aided in this regard by commercial endeavors in which cocaine was combined with wine (e.g., Vin de Coca), products for which there appeared many enthusiastic and uncritical endorsements by notables of the time.

Both interest in and use of cocaine spread to the United States, where extracts of coca leaves were added to many patent medicines. Physicians began prescribing it for a variety of ills including dyspepsia, gastrointestinal disorders, headache, neuralgia, toothache, and more—and use increased dramatically. By the beginning of the twentieth century, cocaine's harmful effects were noted and caused a reassessment of its utility. As part of a broader regulatory effort, the U.S. government began to control its manufacture and sale. In 1914, the HARRISON Narcotic Act forbade use of cocaine in over-the-counter medications and required the registration of those involved in the importation, manufacture, and sale of either coca or opium products. This had the effect of substantially reducing cocaine use in the United States, which remained relatively low until the late 1960s, when it moved into the spotlight once again.

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