Cocaine Eaters of Bombay

Centre for the Social History of Health & HealthcareThe Asian Cocaine Crisis

Pharmaceuticals, consumers & control in South and East Asia, c.1900-1945

Funded by Wellcome Trust Investigator Award 200394/Z/15/Z, 2016-2020

Between 1890 and 1945 Asia formed one of the world's largest markets for cocaine as it became a medicine and intoxicant for users as far apart as Bombay and Shanghai. Responses by governments there show they quickly viewed this as a crisis. As early as 1900 administrators in Bengal attempted to limit sales to those for strictly medical purposes, and by 1912 officials from a number of Asian governments had forced cocaine into the emerging international drugs regulatory system at the Hague Opium Conference. In subsequent decades administrators grappled with Asian consumers of the drug, and with those that defied governments to produce and distribute it.

It is not clear that they did so successfully, as by the 1930s consumers were estimated in the millions across Asia and it was calculated that India alone received five metric tons of the drug annually (worth around $1 billion at today's prices, UNODC 2010). This project will produce the first study of this Asian cocaine crisis.

Its potential for transforming current ideas lies in the unusual features of the story. Cocaine was the first industrially-produced modern pharmaceutical to find a mass market in Asia. It did so despite the efforts of both indigenous and colonial governments. It was sought as a medicine and as an intoxicant in a period when a sharper distinction was being drawn between the two. It appeared in Asia at a time when the politics of intoxication there lay behind the establishment of the international drugs regulatory regime which continues to shape global drugs policy to this day.

Research Question
What were the causes and consequences of the developing market in Asia for cocaine between 1900 and 1945?

To answer this the project will tackle four related sets of questions:

  • Consumers: Who consumed cocaine in South and East Asia in this period and why did they do so?
  • Suppliers: Who was involved in sourcing, distributing and marketing cocaine in these regions during these decades?
  • Government: What drove efforts to prevent the consumption of cocaine in Asia and how successful were the measures taken?
  • Society: How were ideas about cocaine and its consumers formed among scientists and doctors, among officials and diplomats, and in society more generally?


Team Members

James Mills, PI and Professor of Modern History.  Writing the history of cocaine in South Asia.
Ved Baruah, RA researching the control and consumption of cocaine in British India.
Arjo Roersch Van Der Hoogte, RA researching British, Dutch, German and Swiss pharmaceutical companies.
Ian Baker, PhD History, researching the use of cocaine and other psychoactive substances in colonial-era Burma.
Yun Huang, PhD, History, researching the history of psychoactive substances in modern China (1840s-1940s)"
Eva Ward, PhD student researching the consumption of psychoactive substances in the colonial Philippines during the first half of the twentieth century.
Caroline Marley, Project Administrator