Most of the coca leaves that went into the production of Coca-Cola soda came from Peru, which the Coca-Cola company had a near-monopoly over by the beginning of the twentieth century. Around the same time, there emerged a growing concern among lawmakers about the rampant proliferation of alkaloid drugs—including cocaine, derived from the coca leaf. Major American periodicals like the New York Times made associations between the use of the drug and the spread of narcotic addiction. They further associated the increase in “cocaine sniffing” with black crime, which became a particularly important issue in the Southern States. Thus, in 1902, Georgia legislators, playing up racist fears about the dangerous rise of drug-abusing, indigent black people, outlawed the distribution or import of cocaine, and other states soon followed suit.
Coca-Cola was influenced by these developments, and the company’s president, Asa Candler, decided shortly thereafter to remove all traces of cocaine from the soft drink’s secret formula. Therefore, the Coca-Cola company didn’t specifically remove coca from their formula but rather those parts of it that produced a cocaine by-product. In fact, as historian Bartow Elmore has shown in his book Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, the Coca-Cola company contracted with the Maywood Chemical Works company all through the early-twentieth century to help them purify cocaine extract out of imported coca leaves. The national ban on cocaine in 1903 meant that Coca-Cola enjoyed a near-monopoly on the import of coca leaves from South America, and so long as these leaves were successfully removed of cocaine extract in front of FDA inspectors, the remaining, de-cocainized leaf could be put into the drink.
The reason why cocaine was taken out of the original Coca-Cola formula stemmed from the increasing pressure the government was putting on companies across the country to eliminate the distribution of narcotics, a part of the larger early-twentieth century “war on drugs.” But, as Elmore has noted, it also had a racial dimension. Because early cocaine use was primarily associated with southern black crime, cocaine itself came to be associated with blackness and degeneracy. Coca-Cola’s target demographic (at least in the earlier years of its production) was middle-class, white, suburban consumers, and the company therefore wanted to distance itself as much as possible from a social class that most Americans viewed as prone to criminality. In this way, the decisions made by company managers and Asa Candler reflected larger social norms and legislation passed by the states.