Hundreds of kilos of cocaine were found in a Coca-Cola plant in France last Friday, making the seizure of the drug one of the largest ever on French soil.
French officials say the cocaine was discovered in backpacks among a shipment of orange juice concentrate that originated in Costa Rica. The 370 kg of literal coke uncovered at the factory is reported to have a street value of €50 million Euros ($55m) and was referred to as a “very bad surprise” by a local prosecutor.
Authorities are currently unaware of who was behind the cocaine, but an investigation is now underway in Signes, a village in the south of France. Employees of the plant have already been ruled out as suspects.
“The first elements of the investigation have shown that employees are in no way involved,” according to Jean-Denis Malgras, the regional president of Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola was originally called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca and contained a mixture of Peruvian coca leaves, kola nut, damiana, and cocaethylene (cocaine mixed with alcohol). Druggist John Stith Pemberton invented his French Wine Coca in Atlanta, Georgia, and it became very popular across the southeastern United States.
The Coca-Cola recipe was a closely guarded secret, but in 1891, an Atlanta newspaper reported what many had already suspected: Coca-Cola contained cocaine. Coke was forced to change its marketing strategy and began referring to their product as “refreshing,” rather than promoting any medicinal benefits. Coca-Cola began taking cocaine out of its soft drink in 1903 because of racially-promoted fears among white society.
According to the New York Times:
“Anyone with a nickel, black or white, could now drink the cocaine-infused beverage. Middle-class whites worried that soft drinks were contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among African-Americans. Southern newspapers reported that ‘negro cocaine fiends’ were raping white women, the police powerless to stop them.”
Cocaine was eventually made illegal in the United States in 1914, but it wasn’t until 1929 that Coca-Cola perfected its formula. Before that year, the psychoactive components of the coca leaf could still be found in the soda in small amounts.
The Coca-Cola soft drink became completely cocaine-free in 1929, but coca leaf extract is still used to this day as an active ingredient in the internationally popular soda. The ecgonine alkaloid, which gives cocaine its accelerating effect on the brain, is extracted from the coca leaf before processing.
The Stepan Corporation, a New Jersey-based chemical processing company, performs the extraction on the coca leaves for Coca-Cola. Stepan has an arrangement with the DEA and is the only group allowed to import the coca leaf into the United States. One hundred and seventy-five thousand kilograms of coca leaves are imported into the United States each year by Stepan. That is a street value equivalent to roughly $21 billion of cocaine, according to the United Nations.
So what happens to the actual cocaine processed by Stepan? It is hauled away from the facility in armored trucks and then sold to Mallinckrodt, a pharmaceutical company whose United States headquarters are based in St. Louis, Missouri.
The coca leaf extract is referred to as Merchandise No. 5.