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Fact-checking Elon Musk tweet about cocaine in Coca-Cola

Elon Musk said in a tweet that he would buy Coca-Cola “to put the cocaine back in”. The drink once contained coca leaf extract, from which cocaine is derived.

There has been no shortage of talk about Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, after he announced plans to buy Twitter. But news of another planned purchase also sparked interest on social media.

“Next I’m buying Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back in,” Musk wrote in a viral tweet on 04/27

While Musk’s tweet gets a lot of attention, it did for his allegation of an illegal ingredient in the popular soda pop in circulation for many years.

THE QUESTION

Did Coca-Cola once contain cocaine?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This requires context.

Coca-Cola contained small amounts of cocaine when it was invented, but not in its white powder form that we know today, experts say. The drink contained coca leaf extract, from which cocaine is derived.

WHAT WE FOUND

Pharmacist John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in 1885 and created the original formula for the drink in his backyard. He promoted Coca-Cola as a “patent drug” that could cure headaches, upset stomach, and fatigue. Patented drugs were not regulated; They often contained addictive ingredients like cocaine and opium, as well as toxic ingredients like mercury and lead, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

NIDA said in a 2020 blog post that Pemberton’s recipe “included cocaine in the form of an extract from the coca leaf,” which inspired part of the soft drink’s name.

The coca leaf in its natural form is a “harmless and mild stimulant comparable to coffee,” but cocaine can be extracted from its leaves, according to the Transnational Institute.

Gregory Collins, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas San Antonio, also told VERIFY that the cocaine alkaloid is found “in very small amounts” — less than 1% — in most coca leaves. The cocaine alkaloid can then be extracted and purified to make the drug cocaine.

Coca-Cola likely contained cocaine alkaloid as part of the coca leaf extract “at very low levels and similar to coca leaf teas,” Collins explained.

According to NIDA, cocaine was legal and a common ingredient in US drugs aimed at curing a variety of diseases when Coca-Cola was invented. People back then thought cocaine was safe in small amounts.

In the 1970s, cocaine became an expensive recreational drug. According to information from the US Drug Enforcement Administration Museum, its use increased across the country as cocaine became cheaper and more widely available.

Mark Pendergrast, author of the book “For God, Country and Coca-Cola,” said Coca-Cola was originally advertised as a “nerve tonic” because it contained a small amount of cocaine in the form of the coca leaf extract and caffeine in the kola nut. The drink “never contained pure cocaine in terms of the white powder added,” he told VERIFY.

The New York Times also reported in 1988 that a Coca-Cola spokesman said the “original recipe contained coca with cocaine, but the narcotic was removed shortly after the turn of the century.”

Despite this, Coca-Cola pointed out to US VERIFY a statement that said, “Cocaine was never an added ingredient in Coca-Cola,” and the drink does not currently contain cocaine “or any other harmful substance.”

There are some differing answers as to when Coca-Cola began using a “decocainized” coca extract as one of its flavorings. Pendergrast and the Transnational Institute say this happened in 1903.

“The amount of cocaine in Coca-Cola was reduced over time and eventually eliminated from the drink by 1929,” according to NIDA. Coca-Cola soon became popular as a “non-alcoholic” drink as an alternative to hard alcohol during the Prohibition era.

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Alley Einstein

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