The potent drug cocaine was first prescribed as an anesthetic and a
painkiller by doctors who believed that it was a safe substitute for morphine.
The drug is a white, crystalline compound that has been processed from the
leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca), a tropical shrub commonly found
wild in Peru and Bolivia and cultivated in many other countries. For centuries
South American Indians have chewed the coca leaves for pleasure and to help them
withstand strenuous working conditions, hunger, and thirst. The cocaine in the
leaves produces local anesthesia of the mouth and stomach.
Cocaine is a dangerous, habit-forming drug. It is classified as an
alkaloid compound. (Other well-known alkaloids are morphine, strychnine, and
nicotine.) Cocaine stimulates the cortex of the brain, producing intense
euphoria and the desire to repeat the experience; however, the drug has a highly
toxic effect upon the central nervous system.
The fine, white powder–also called snow, coke, or toot–can be tasted,
but usually it is sniffed. It is readily absorbed into the bloodstream through
the nasal mucous membranes, but it acts as an irritant to constrict blood
vessels and sometimes causes ulcerations in the nasal cavity. Cocaine is also
injected in solution into veins or may be smoked in chemically treated forms
known as free base and crack.
Any method of ingestion produces compulsive use, and drug dependency may
develop in a relatively short time. Users are attracted at first when small
amounts of cocaine decrease their fatigue and increase their mental awareness.
When taken in larger amounts, cocaine may also produce digestive disorders,
weight loss, sleeplessness, irritability, depression, and hallucinations or
paranoia. Cocaine abuse overstimulates the spinal cord, and convulsions may
result, leading to respiratory failure and death. (See Drugs)