In 1886, Atlanta, Georgia passed a short-lived law prohibiting the sale and/or manufacture of alcohol. In response, a pharmacist named John Pemberton created a faux wine, mixing together fruit flavors with extracts from kola nuts (caffeine) and coca leaves (cocaine). He dispensed it via soda fountains — at the time, carbonated water was believed to have a medicinal benefit — and with that, Coca-Cola was born.
While the original Coke formula had a significant amount of cocaine in it, that was quickly stemmed and, by 1903 or thereabouts, eliminated from the recipe. This was done, in part, because the desired flavor can be extracted from the coca leaves, thereby removing the cocaine, setting the drug aside as a byproduct. But we do know that, to this day, Coca-Cola needs coca leaves to make its drinks; as a Coke exec told the New York Times, “[i]ngredients from the coca leaf are used, but there is no cocaine in it and it is all tightly overseen by regulatory authorities.”
In fact, the United States (and most other nations) expressly prohibits the sale and trade of coca leaves. In order for Coca-Cola to continue to exist in its current form, the company has a special arrangement with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) allowing it to import dried coca leaves from Peru (and to a lesser degree, from Bolivia) in huge quantities. The dried coca leaves make their way to a processing plant in Maywood, New Jersey, operated by the Stepan Corporation, a publicly traded chemicals company. The Stepan factory imports roughly 100 metric tons of the leaves each year, stripping the active ingredient — the cocaine — from them. The cocaine-free leaves are then shipped off to Coke to turn into syrup, and, ultimately, soda.
What does Stepan do with the cocaine? It goes to the Mallinckrodt Corporation, which creates a legal, topical anesthesia called cocaine hydrochloride. Cocaine hydrochloride is used to numb the lining of the mouth, nose, or throat, and requires a DEA order form to obtain.
Bonus fact: Coca-Cola’s recipe contains a mystery flavoring, known as the “7X flavor.” It is heavily guarded. In early 2011, NPR’s This American Life broadcast an episode discussing a potential early recipe for the drink, but almost certainly not the one in use today. (Coke denied that NPR had discovered the true formula.) In that episode, Mark Pendergrast, author of “For God, Country, and Coca-Cola,” an unauthorized history of the company (and beverage), told This American Life (via TIME) that “only two people know how to mix the 7x flavoring ingredient” and that “[t]hose two people never travel on the same plane in case it crashes; it’s this carefully passed-on secret ritual and the formula is kept in a bank vault.”
Double bonus!: The image above is a coupon for a free Coca-Cola. The coupon, which dates back to 1888, is believed to be the first coupon ever issued.