27 October 2010, by mblanding
There’s nothing like that kick you get from an ice-cold Coke on a hot summer day. But if you believe the rumors, that’s nothing compared to the kick Coca-Cola used to have back when it contained a little extra ingredient called cocaine. Are those rumors true? After examining all the evidence for my new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, I can almost certainly say yes.
Let’s start with the name. In its earliest days, Coca-Cola was marketed as the combination of two exotic ingredients: the African kola nut, which contains more caffeine than coffee; and the South American coca leaf, which was once hailed as a miracle cure for whatever ailed you—from asthma to toothaches. (Drug maker Parke-Davis even produced coca-leaf cigarettes.) Coca-Cola’s creator, John Pemberton, took to the new ingredient wholeheartedly, producing a precursor to Coca-Cola called French Wine Coca that mixed red wine and cocaine to the tune of a third of a modern “line” per glass. When prohibition came to Atlanta in 1885, however, he was forced to remove the alcohol and concoct a new beverage, and Coca-Cola was born.
It would be strange if Pemberton didn’t keep the cocaine in his new drink—he was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the drug, raving to a newspaper reporter that, “[i]t is a most powerful stimulant…strengthening and giving tone to the nerves more promptly and permanently than any drug with which I am acquainted. Besides exercising an invigorating influence upon the cerebral centers, it imparts an indescribable sense of satisfaction.” (Indeed!)
While the exact formula for Coca-Cola has always been a closely guarded secret, both Pemberton and the man who took control of the Coca-Cola Company a few years later, Asa Candler, marketed the drink as containing cocaine, declaring as much in both newspaper advertisements and pamphlets. One pamphlet that Candler produced at the turn of the 20th century, for example, claimed it “contains, in a remarkable degree, the tonic properties of the wonderful Erythroxylon Coca Plant of South America.” During a court trial in 1901, Candler himself testified on the stand that it did contain “a very small proportion” of the drug.
So assuming that’s true, how much cocaine did Coke actually contain? In actuality, probably not much. While the formula for Coca-Cola has always been a closely guarded secret, one early copy drink uncovered by Coke biographer Mark Pendergrast called for 1/20th of a grain, or about 3 mg, of cocaine. (Compare that to the 30mg of cocaine in Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, or the 50–100 mg in a modern “line.”) A chemical analysis done in 1891 by the president of the Georgia Pharmaceutical Association also confirmed the presence of cocaine, but concluded that “it would require about thirty glasses…to make an ordinary dose of the drug.” In other words, the amount of cocaine in the drink was probably more symbolic than medicinal—requiring a whole lot of Cokes to feel much of any effect.
That fact makes it all the more strange that the Coca-Cola Company continues to claim to this day it never used cocaine in the drink. As recently as 2008, company archivist Phil Mooney categorically denied the rumors in a blog posting, insisting, “Coca-Cola has never used cocaine as an ingredient.” Perhaps there’s a slight slipperiness there—since cocaine was never added directly, but was rather part of the extract of coca leaves used to make the drink. (I would have asked Mooney himself to explain; however, The Coca-Cola Company denied me an interview with him and virtually everyone else in the company.)
One thing is clear: By the early twentieth century, cocaine was already under attack as an addictive drug, and its use was soon banned in the United States. Records show that by 1906, Candler had entirely removed it from the drink. To this day, Coke continues to be made with de-cocanized coca leaves (imported with special permission from Peru). But for more than 100 years, there has been no coke in Coke.