Coca-Cola, Cocaine, and the True Rumors of Addiction

Coca-Cola, Cocaine, and the True Rumors of Addiction

Those who enjoy drinking Coca-Cola, commonly referred to as “Coke,” have likely heard the rumor at one point or another that the soft drink used to contain cocaine. It would be understandable for the savvy reader to dismiss this rumor as yet another urban legend, likely based on the beverage’s unique name. It turns out that this rumor is actually true. Coca-Cola actually did once have cocaine among its ingredients, and non-narcotic extracts of the coca plant are still used to produce the drink.

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Coca-Cola was invented by pharmacist and former Confederate Cavalry Officer Dr. John Stith Pemberton. Pemberton was the nephew of Confederate General John Clifford Pemberton, best known for surrendering Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. Licensed to practice medicine and having earned a graduate degree in pharmacology before the Civil War, Dr. John Stith Pemberton was also a gallant Lieutenant Colonel in the Third Georgia Cavalry Battalion, and came close to losing his life during fighting in Columbus, Georgia, on April 16, 1865. A saber wound across his chest led to a lifelong addiction to morphine for the pain.

It was during the years of the American Civil War (1863) that a French company, Mariani and Company of Paris, would introduce Vin Mariani, an alcoholic beverage which inspired Pemberton. James Hamblin wrote a piece in the The Atlantic, “Why We Took Cocaine Out of Soda,” which is worth reading for those interested in a more in-depth treatment of the cocaine connection to Coca-Cola. In his article, Hamblin talks about the euphoric effects of combining cocaine and alcohol in the human body, and of the success which resulted from this incidental creation of the drug cocethylene, a result of the alcohol and cocaine combination present in Vin Mariana.

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Pemberton would later (1885) develop a very similar drink, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, as competition to Vin Mariani. Strangely enough, it was the alcohol and not the cocaine which first created an obstacle for Pemberton’s business venture. Early prohibition adopted in Atlanta forced Pemberton to develop a new drink which did not contain alcohol. Pemberton was able to create a new drink by substituting sugar and citric acid for the wine. As Pemberton continued seeking improved marketing for his product, an associate named Frank Robinson created a new name based on the two main ingredients of the reformulated drink—ingredients derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut. Thus with a new name, in 1886 Coca-Cola was born.

According to Hamblin, the continued presence of cocaine in the popular soft drink incited fear and enflamed racism in the South. When Coca-Cola became available to purchase in bottles in 1899, it was no longer a beverage exclusively available from soda jerks to privileged whites, but became an affordable luxury to the masses. Those with newfound access to the soft drink included the African Americans who previously lacked access to Coca-Cola in the segregated soda fountains of the South. Apparently the availability of Coca-Cola to African Americans was insufferable to some, who feared “the negro who has become a cocaine-doper.” Thus, racial prejudice and increasingly strict anti-narcotics laws led the company to attempt to remove cocaine entirely from Coca-Cola in 1903. Even then, imperfect extraction techniques left trace amounts of the narcotic in the soft drink until 1929.

Bottom Line

Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 as a non-alcoholic version of an earlier beverage, both of which were created by a former Confederate Cavalry Officer, Dr. John Stith Pemberton. In its early form, Coca-Cola did contain cocaine, which was reduced to trace amounts in 1903 and disappeared from the drink altogether in 1929.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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