In 1855, the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke achieved what many before him had tried and failed to accomplish, he successfully isolated the alkaloid found in the South American coca leaf. While the stimulant properties in coca leaves had been recognized for centuries, gaining access to it was another matter for Europeans. The coca plant could not be grown in Europe and its leaves tended not to travel well. Naming the new alkaloid "erythroxyline", Gaedcke published his results but it would take another research chemist, Albert Niemann, to take the discovery further. Basing his doctoral dissertation on the coca derivative, he developed a better purification process and he gave erythroxyline a new name based on the plant from which it was produced, cocaine.
Once cocaine became widely available, the scientific world was quick to exploit this new discovery. The value of cocaine as a local anesthetic, as a treatment for fatigue and depression, and even as a treatment for morphine addiction added to it's allure. Eminent medical researchers (including Sigmund Freud) advocated its use as a non-addictive stimulant and cocaine found it's way into a variety of products, from cigarettes to wine that could be purchased at any department store. It was also used by athletes to enhance physical performance. When Coca Cola was first introduced in 1886, the recipe included a "pinch of coca leaves" (hence the name).
Then the backlash set in. While the coca leaves that the original South American natives chewed rarely caused addiction problems, the refined cocaine was another story. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was well apparent that cocaine was just as addictive as the morphine and opium that it was originally used to combat. Cocaine-laced products vanished quickly from store shelves (and Coca-Cola changed it's recipe in 1904). Former advocates such as Freud publicly expressed their regret at the role that they played in popularizing what would become a major social problem. By 1910, hospitals began reporting cases of nasal damage resulting from snorting cocaine. By 1912, thousands of cases of cocaine-related fatalities were identified. Fighting the spread of cocaine became a major preoccupation for politicians and the mass media and the anti-drug hysteria took some bizarre forms. In the United States, newspapers would play on racist fears of the effects of cocaine on the "Negro brain" which would then make them more likely to prey on white women. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed to ban all narcotics including cocaine (despite the fact that it is a stimulant, not a narcotic). The first wave of cocaine-related deaths subsided in the 1920s as a result of anti-drug policies (and the growing availabllity of amphetamines which were cheaper and safer).
The popularity of cocaine (including freebased cocaine and it's offspring "crack") would grow and subside over the years. Following a crackdown on amphetamine trafficking, a second cocaine epidemic struck the United States in the 1970s (the crack cocaine epidemic would begin in the 1980s). While heroin has since gained in popularity, cocaine is currently second only to cannabis in terms of popularity with millions of drug users around the world and crack houses being found in most major population centres.
It seemed like such a good idea....