·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

News & Politics

How Cocaine Prohibition Led to a Wave of Synthetic Stimulant Drugs

— June 20, 2022

When synthetic stimulants are sold on the streets, the likelihood of drug cutting is almost a guarantee.

It wasn’t too long ago that you could walk into your local drugstore to buy cocaine for personal use. This drug, now identified as a Schedule II controlled substance with a high potential for abuse, used to be available at virtually any saloon, mail order vendor, or even grocery store. Back in the late 1800s, cocaine was much more diverse than buying a bag of white powder. In fact, at the time, you could find cocaine in upwards of 15 different forms, including cigarettes, inhalants, and cordials. One could even find it mixed with wine. 

Many of us already know about the infamous Coca-Cola, which did, in fact, contain cocaine in soda form. After the dawn of the 20th century, the stimulant drug was outlawed, and the rest is history. Well, not so fast. It turns out that once cocaine prohibition took effect, the problem didn’t go away. In fact, it led to a wave of synthetic stimulant drugs that have affected the U.S. up to the present day. Here’s how. 

Plant-Based vs. Lab-Based

Unlike its modern-day predecessors, cocaine is technically a plant-based drug, or at least it starts as one. It’s derived from the coca plant, a plant native to South America. Medical professionals use it today, although its use is very rare. Unlike marijuana, which can be grown and smoked, the coca plant must be synthesized in labs where the raw plant undergoes a series of chemical transformations. By the time cocaine is made into a form for consumption (smoking, snorting, injecting, etc.), it has become a lab-based drug. 

Synthetic stimulants are different in that they are entirely lab-based. Popular versions of synthetic stimulants include methamphetamines, MDMA (ecstasy), and prescription amphetamines, such as Adderall and Ritalin. Unlike cocaine, these stimulants are wholly made in labs, using base ingredients such as over-the-counter pseudoephedrine for meth, bath salts for ecstasy, and a combination of amphetamine salts and sulfates for Adderall. Of these synthetic stimulants, amphetamines, such as Adderall, are the only ones still in widespread medical use today. But how did these drugs come about, and why are they notoriously linked to so much of the stimulant drug abuse going on in America today?

Risks and Rewards

Before its prohibition, cocaine was medically approved for various ailments, including sinusitis, hay fever, and chronic fatigue. However, once the potential for abuse was realized, public opinion became unanimous that the risks of cocaine far outweighed its rewards. By 1914, the Harrison Act regulated cocaine, unintentionally giving rise to a new market of stimulants. A decade later, amphetamines were discovered. By the 1940s, they gained medical status in diet and antidepressant treatments. Like cocaine, these drugs were widely used and abused up until the 1970s, when they were placed under stricter controls. 

Before ecstasy gained an illicit market in raves and music festivals, mental health practitioners used it for therapeutic purposes. The DEA sought to prohibit the drug, and by the 1980s, it was successful despite the mental health community’s disagreement. While the legal status of MDMA continues to be contentious, it seems that for now, the DEA still views the drug in the same boat as cocaine—a risk that is not worth the rewards.

Unlike cocaine and MDMA, amphetamines like Adderall seem to still have a level of legality that overlooks the risks for the rewards. Even though Adderall and other stimulant drugs used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and insomnia are highly addictive, the drug has not yet faced the same level of prohibition that other stimulant drugs have so far. While the FDA limits the proper use and dispensing of Adderall for legitimate cases, the drug plays a major role in the meth epidemic today. Adderall is often repurposed for illicit meth and/or crystal meth production. 

Synthetic Risks

Advertisement for cocaine toothache drops; image courtesy National Library of Medicine,, public domain, via
Advertisement for cocaine toothache drops; image courtesy National Library of Medicine,, public domain, via

Perhaps the most important risk that has developed with synthetic stimulants is not the legal status of these drugs but rather how many of these drugs are subject to deadly risks. These risks not only include how they are repurposed in meth production but how they are marketed on the streets by name only. In fact, as fentanyl lacing grows, illicit drugs create a much more dangerous situation for the people who use them. 

When synthetic stimulants are sold on the streets, the likelihood of drug cutting is almost a guarantee. Buying cocaine, MDMA, or even Adderall from the street is no longer a given. Rather, drugs sold under these names could contain a number of cutting and filler agents, many of which have a high potential for health concerns and even fatal overdoses. 

While the history of synthetic stimulants has progressed in response to cocaine prohibition, these latter drugs have fallen prey to the same outcome as cocaine. Despite being prohibited and regulated at the legal level, they still find their way onto the streets where there are no regulations whatsoever. Because of this risk that becomes more explosive over time, it is imperative to avoid the risk of synthetic stimulants at all costs. While controlled environments of stimulant drugs carry a risk for abuse, illicit stimulant drugs carry a risk of immediate death. 

Unfortunately, this is the new territory of street drugs, and the prospects of changing this can only be positive when people determine the risks far outweigh the rewards.


NIH. (n.d.). Comparison Between Procaine and Isocarboxazid Metabolism in Vitro by a Liver Microsomal Amidase-Esterase. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Guide to Cocaine Addiction and Treatment. Retrieved

DEA. (2020, April). Cocaine Drug Fact Sheet. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Stimulant Addiction. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Meth Addiction Signs and Treatment. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Comparing Meth and Adderall: Are They the Same Drug? Retrieved

NIH. (2019, Oct). How is Methamphetamine Manufactured? Retrieved

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2017, Nov.). Ecstasy or Molly (MDMA). Retrieved

Science Direct. (2021). Adderall. Retrieved,%2Disomer%20to%20L%2Disomer.

ACLU. (n.d.) Against Drug Prohibition. Retrieved

History. (2017, May 31). War on Drugs. Retrieved

NIH. (2015, Feb 1). Amphetamine- Type Stimulants: The Early History of Their Medical and Non-Medical Uses. Retrieved

Drug Policy. (2012, Feb 7). Can MDMA be Used as Medicine or Therapy? Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Study Durgs: A Gateway to Hard Drugs? Retrieved

FDA. (2015, July 8). Adderall and Adderall XR (Amphetamines) Information. Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Fentanyl Addiction: What Side Effects Should You Know About? Retrieved

Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Cold Turkey Detox from Adderall: Dangers and What to Expect. Retrieved

Join the conversation!