What are coca leaves?
In pre-Columbian times, the coca leaf was officially reserved for Inca royalty. The natives used coca for mystical, religious, social, nutritional and medicinal purposes. Coqueros exploited its stimulant properties to ward off fatigue and hunger, enhance endurance, and to promote a benign sense of well-being.
Coca was initially banned by the Spanish. In 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco outlawed coca use on pain of death because it was "an evil agent of the Devil". The noted 16th century orthodox Catholic artist Don Diego De Robles declared that "coca is a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives". But the invaders discovered that without the Incan "gift of the gods", the natives could barely work the fields - or mine gold. So it came to be cultivated even by the Catholic Church. Coca leaves were distributed three or four times a day to the workers during brief rest-breaks.
Returning Spanish conquistadores introduced coca to Europe. Even Shakespeare may have smoked it - and inhaled. The coca plant is perishable and travels poorly. Yet coca was touted as "an elixir of life". In 1814, an editorial in Gentleman's Magazine urged researchers to begin experimentation so that coca could be used as "a substitute for food so that people could live a month, now and then, without eating..."
The active ingredient of the coca plant was first isolated in the West by the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke in 1855; he named it "Erythroxyline".
Coca-cola was introduced in 1886 as "a valuable brain-tonic and cure for all nervous afflictions". Coca-cola was promoted as a temperance drink "offering the virtues of coca without the vices of alcohol". The new beverage was invigorating and popular. Until 1903, a typical serving contained around 60mg of cocaine. Sold today, it still contains an extract of coca-leaves. The Coca-Cola Company imports eight tons from South America each year. Nowadays the leaves are used only for flavouring since the drug has been removed.
Since the hydrochloride salt decomposes at the temperature required to vaporise it, cocaine is instead converted to the liberated base form. Initially,"free-base" cocaine was typically produced using volatile solvents, usually aether. Unfortunately, this technique is physically dangerous. The solvent tends to ignite. Hence a more convenient method of producing smokeable free-base became popular. Its product is crack.
To obtain crack-cocaine, ordinary cocaine hydrochloride is concentrated by heating the drug in a solution of baking soda until the water evaporates. This type of base-cocaine makes a cracking sound when heated; hence the name "crack". Base-cocaine vaporises at a low temperature, so it can be easily inhaled via a heated pipe.