When news broke yesterday about the discovery of $56 million worth of cocaine at a Coca-Cola plant in France, the press was all abuzz. But as it turns out, this Cocaine-Cola connection is not entirely new; Coca-Cola has been intimately linked to domestic manufacture of cocaine in the United States for years.
A little glimpse into Coke’s history reveals all.
Yes, most people know that Coca-Cola’s first president Asa Candler became concerned about cocaine in the early 1900s and decided to remove any trace of the drug in the company’s famous drink, but few people know that Coke continued to use what is called “decocainized coca leaf extract” in its signature beverage. In company ledgers, this―mixed with kola nut powder― is what is known as Merchandise #5, one of the “secret ingredients.”
Here’s how the process works. Beginning in the early 1900s, Coca-Cola partnered with a company called Maywood Chemical Works based in Maywood, New Jersey (now the Stepan Company) to import coca leaves (which contain small quantities of the alkaloid found in purified cocaine powder) from Peru for Coca-Cola. The company removed the cocaine alkaloid from these leaves and then sold Coca-Cola the leftover extract. As per the cocaine, Maywood sold it under close federal supervision for approved medical uses.
Federal law sanctioned this practice. Legislators wrote a special exemption into the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, the Jones-Miller Act of 1922, and subsequent counternarcotics legislation that allowed “decocainized coca leaves or preparations therefrom” to be sold in the United States. Some lawmakers called this clause the “Coca-Cola joker” because it was clearly designed to protect Coke’s secretive coca business.
Over time, Coke’s demand for coca leaves grew so great that legislation had to be passed to allow leaves to come into the country beyond what was needed for the manufacture of cocaine for medicinal purposes. These laws specified that alkaloids extracted from these coca leaves had to be destroyed with federal officials bearing witness.
All was well for Coke for many years under this arrangement, but in the 1960s, the company got a crazy idea: why not grow coca leaves secretly in the United States? That way the company would have a domestic source of supply.
It may sound outlandish, but that’s exactly what happened. In the 1960s, Coca-Cola, working with its partner, the Stepan Company, gained federal approval to begin a secret coca cultivation operation in Hawaii called the “Alakea” project. University of Hawaii scientists agreed to participate in the project but were prohibited from publishing any reports about their work because Coke did not want the public to know about its relationship to these coca leaves.
Within months, those working on Alakea could happily report that coca shrubs were growing in Hawaii, but celebrations lasted only so long. Soon a fungus wiped out the entire crop and the project was abandoned.
The failure of Alakea was really no matter for Coke, which simply continued sourcing leaves from Peru. All of this was channeled through Stepan, a third-party buffer that helped keep Coke’s coca trade out of sight. Import records show that Stepan is still happily bringing in coca leaves in the 2010s.
What’s problematic about all this is that cocaleros, coca farmers in Peru, have been getting a raw deal. For years, Coca-Cola has enjoyed exclusive access to coca leaves coming into the United States and cocaleros have been prohibited from selling other coca products—teas, candies, and flours—to American markets. Coke has no doubt liked it this way because competition for coca leaves would drive up prices, which is never good for business.
But cocaleros see it differently. Peruvians with intimate knowledge of coca production in the Andes told me back in 2012 that coca farmers would love nothing more than to “revalorize” the coca leaf and once and for all quash the misconception that the coca leaf and purified cocaine are the same thing. Then cocaleros might experience a commercial boon that would allow them to abandon exploitative relationships with drug lords and monopolistic buyers.
Today, if I were to travel to Peru and try to return home with a small batch of coca leaves (perhaps to brew tea), I would be detained by border officials.
So here’s the essential question: if Coke can work partnerships to bring coca leaves into the United States, why can’t the rest of us? That’s the real story behind the Cocaine-Cola connection.