Andean Indians have long chewed leaves of the coca plant to decrease hunger and increase their stamina for work. Chewing the leaves produces no "high." Cocaine was first extracted from coca in the 19th cent. and was at first hailed as a miracle drug. By the 1880s in the United States it was freely prescribed by physicians for such maladies as exhaustion, depression, and morphine addiction and was available in many patent medicines. After users and physicians began to realize its dangers and various regulations were enacted, its use decreased, and by the 1920s the epidemic had abated.
Another epidemic began in the United States in the 1970s and peaked in the mid-1980s; again the drug was at first considered harmless. With the latter epidemic and its accompanying crack epidemic (beginning in 1985 and peaking in 1988) violence in crack-infested neighborhoods increased dramatically. Young people with few other opportunities were lured by the power and money of being crack dealers; most carried guns and many were murdered in drug-gang wars that ensued. By the late 1990s the cocaine and crack epidemic had subsided as heroin regained popularity among illicit drug users.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.