Do the real reasons that coca was taken out of Coca Cola mean that cocaine was not or is not harmful?
Coca-cola still contains extracts from coca leaves, though it has not contained cocaine since 1929, when the process of removing cocaine and related alkaloid from the leaves was perfected. Cocaine was largely excluded from the product (and more sugar and caffeine added to compensate) in 1903.
Coca-cola was marketed in a number of different ways at the turn of the century, but one of them stressed its effectiveness as a sexual stimulant, with cocaine as the active ingredient. As Grace Elizabeth Hale argues in her New York Times article "When Jim Crow drank Coke" (January 28, 2013), there were widespread concerns among white people at the time that black men who took cocaine were raping white women. After 1899, bottled Coca-cola was available to anyone, black or white, who had a nickel to spend, making it a cheap and easy way of obtaining cocaine. This is why Coca-cola removed most of the cocaine just four years later.
This history, however, has little bearing on the nature, harmful or otherwise, of the cocaine that is sold illegally in the United States by drug dealers today. A coca leaf is generally less than 1% cocaine. The highest estimates of the amount of cocaine that a bottle of Coca-cola would have contained in 1903 put it at about 9 milligrams, less than 20% of a line of cocaine. Moreover, the fact that all this happened over a century ago, with various changes in the recipe for Coca-cola (which at one point also contained alcohol) means that we have no reliable data on the health effects of the drink. The presence of cocaine in Coca-cola until 1903 (and in trace amounts until 1929) is irrelevant to our assessment of the risks of taking cocaine today.
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