Cocaine Molecular Structure

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This article reviews the cocaine molecular structure. In the mid-1800s, Organic Chemistry as an analytical science was moving forward at a breakneck pace. Plant derived compounds were of great interest and the ability to extract and purify active components was in full swing. The key to purification (including cocaine) was a series of extractions to get rid of other substances in the plant. By 1860, this had been done for cocaine. However, just having a very pure sample wasn’t enough to discover the cocaine molecular structure.

Consider the challenge. Before you is a crystalline material, very pure. You know it is a single molecular substance because it is crystal form (a property of crystals). Now what? The first step was to break it down to see what pieces emerged. Any piece that was already known to chemistry would tell you a bit about the structure. Remember, nothing can actually be seen of the molecule itself.

Using this technique, the cocaine molecule was broken down into a benzoic acid and ecognine. While this helped determine what the molecule was made of, at the time no one could say just how these two were attached together. The problem with the cocaine molecular structure is similar to solving a puzzle where the pieces can fit together in different ways. The real proof that you know what’s going on is being able to start, not with cocaine, but with what you think it is made up of and then making it.

So, to understand the cocaine molecular structure, you first take it apart and see what you get, but then you try to synthesize it from scratch to prove it. It wasn’t until forty years after the first purification that a synthesis was finally accomplished. Information about the actual relationships between the atoms that make up the cocaine molecular structure weren't finally nailed down until a hundred years after (1961) the first crystallization.

Currently, cocaine can be synthesized in the lab in a five step process, but it is rarely done because of the technical expertise required and the cost of the ingredients. The DEA reports that only about 1% or less of cocaine seized is synthetic. Almost all cocaine comes from plant extraction and purification – essentially the same process first used in 1860. Medical cocaine is actually a byproduct of the process that extracts flavoring agents from coca leaves. The limited legal uses of cocaine means there is plenty available from this source.

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