This is how cocaine became an illegal drug

Not too long ago, cocaine was as respectable as your morning cup of coffee.

This is how cocaine became an illegal drug.Getty Images

Back in the day, indigenous folks in South America chewed coca leaves for a little energy boost, much like we rely on caffeine. Fast forward to the 19th century, scientists got clever and isolated the peppy substance—cocaine—from those leaves.

Cocaine became the talk of the town across Europe and America. It was the miracle worker of the medical world, praised for everything from curing toothaches to depression. And yes, it even made its way into our beloved Coca-Cola and became the secret behind the beverage’s initial kick.

Rising concerns and recreational use

But there was a twist around the early 1900s, people started noticing that this wonder drug wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Stories began surfacing—dramatic ones—with claims of addiction, madness, and moral decay.

Now, these stories were often pumped up with a good dose of racial and class bias, painting a picture of cocaine as a harbinger of societal downfall.

In 1914 when the U.S. government stepped in with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. This law was meant to keep tabs on drugs by taxing them, but it pretty much made cocaine an 'illegal' substance, especially for anyone wanting to have a bit of recreational fun.

Legislation and the war on drugs

Fast forward a few decades, and the story of cocaine takes darker turns with laws stacking up, each one stricter than the last. By the 1980s, America's War on Drugs had hit full throttle under President Reagan.

Laws like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 didn’t just outlaw cocaine further; they slammed down harder on crack, a cheaper derivative that was hitting the poorest communities the hardest.

Modern perspectives

Today, the regulation of cocaine remains strict across most of the world, though there is an ongoing debate about drug policy reform, including the effectiveness of criminalization versus approaches focused on health and treatment.

The history of cocaine’s illegality is a reflection of changing social attitudes, scientific understanding, and political priorities, often influenced by socioeconomic and racial factors.

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