In the first half of the 20th Century, tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine were produced in Amsterdam. During the First World War, it was exported to soldiers on both sides of the front, with full approval of the Dutch government.
Credits: Aron Friedman
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine, but over a century ago, Holland was one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine. Between 1900 and 1962, thousands of kilos of cocaine were produced and shipped to all parts of the world. Officially, the purpose of all that white powder was medicinal. But during World War I, the factory had permission from the government to traffick a fair share to both Germany and England, who used it to provide soldiers on both side of the front. How’s that for commercial spirit?
Cocaine is one of the most popular drugs in the world – and that’s no coincidence. Thousands of years ago, the coca plant was already considered sacred by the Incas, because of its medicinal and stimulative qualities. When a German chemist was able to isolate the active alkaloid from the plant in 1855, he called it cocaine. In the following decades, all kinds of new wonder drugs containing coca or cocaine became readily available, from ointments and powders to pills and potions.
Vin de Mariani, wine with coca leaves, was a popular drink in the 19th Century. Plenty of historical figures were enchanted with it, including several popes.
A drink like Vin de Mariani (see image) is a good indicator of the zeitgeist in those days. So is Coca-Cola, patented in 1886. Among other ingredients, this 19th Century energy drink contained a coca leaves extract. (Fun fact: meanwhile, the soda hasn’t had any active agents in it for over a century, but the company now has the only license in the US to legally import coca). Another telling example of the coca-craze of the late 1800’s was Sigmund Freud, who saw cocaine as the ultimate miracle drug. He even prescribed it to his friend, to help him shake his morphine addiction. Which then gave the poor bastard another addiction to deal with.
Miracle drug or not, the medicinal effects of cocaine are evident. It works splendidly as a local anaesthetic, or as a painkiller. It came as a welcome addition to anyone’s medicine cabinet. From 1870, Amsterdam’s go-to supplier of self-produced cocaine was doctor José Alvarez, who sold his preparations from his tiny lab at Zeedijk 16. An ad in the Geneeskundige Courant (Medical Journal) claimed that his coca-pills (costs: two guilders per package) would yield ‘the most astonishing cures of neck, breast and lung diseases, like colds, asthmatic attacks, tiny sores of the lungs, even when the latter is already highly apparent.’
In those years, opium or cocaine addiction weren’t seen as a social issue. Public drunkenness was. Whether a substance is a taboo or not changes over time
You could also get coca or cocaine products without a recipe, carrying names like ‘Vin de coca du Pérou’ or ‘Prof Dr. Sampsons coca preparations,’ at any pharmacy, drug store or grocer. And although it was becoming quite clear that cocaine and opium could be very addictive, doctors had no problem prescribing them. Opium or cocaine addiction wasn’t seen as a social issue. Alcoholism was: in Amsterdam, public drunkenness was punished with a fine of ten guilders. Whether a substance is taboo or not changes over time.
Cocaine factory shareholder… how’s that for a job description?
The coca leaves used for European cocaine were initially imported from Bolivia and Peru. Especially the Peruvian kind was massively consumed here. It came in through the port of Hamburg. Holland wouldn’t be Holland if it didn’t smell money in the coca trade. In 1878, a couple of coca bushes were shipped from South-America to Java, where they were planted on the Hortus Botanicus in Buitenzorg plantation. Twelve years later (the plants take a long time to grow) the coca was ready to be exported.
‘Holland wouldn’t be Holland if it didn’t smell money in the coca trade’
From 1891, the Koloniale Bank (Colonial Bank) – which had interests in tropical agriculture and forestry goods – played an important role in the import and export of Java coca. Out of Holland, the product was mostly exported to Germany, where it was processed into cocaine. Eventually, the bank realized it would be much more lucrative to produce cocaine itself. In 1895, the Nederlandse Cocaïne Fabriek (Dutch Cocaine Factory, NFC) was founded.
It took another five years before the factory was actually in business, but it was done in 1900. On the corner of Schinkelstraat and Schinkelkade in Amsterdam, the NFC started to produce its first batches of cocaine. On one side of the lab was the boiler room, with a steam boiler and an air pump. On the other side was the extraction room – with the fueling kettle, a mixing barrel and fifteen cauldrons for processing – and the repository. In only a couple of years, the quality of the Java coca improved so much (in the beginning it was pretty worthless) that it outclassed the stuff from Peru. The demand for Dutch-produced cocaine kept rising. Other cocaine factories were built, one in Amsterdam and another in Meppel, in the East of Holland. The NFC also expanded its factory with several new buildings, and built an extra floor on top of the old building.
NFC: Breaking Bad on Amsterdam’s Schinkelkade (photo: NRC)
In the years before the First World War started, the paradigm was starting to shift: drug trafficking was starting to be considered as something problematic. During the international opium conference in The Hague in 1911, an agreement was reached, instigated by the United States, to start regulating the trade and production of cocaine internationally. But it took a while before the Netherlands was ready to ratify the agreement. By now, Amsterdam had become the biggest transit port for coca in the world. The Java coca yielded 500 million guilders a year. In 1908, NFC even moved to a brand-new location on the Duivendrechtsekade, because further expansion of the old factory buildings was impossible.
‘Technically, there was an export ban on medicines from Holland’s neutral territory, but the NFC got a special exemption’
At first, the Dutch Cocaine Factory was cashing in on the outbreak of the war. Not only did NFC’s biggest competitor, the German Merck KgaA, lose its accessibility to commodities and markets. The demand for cocaine rose exponentially on both sides of the front. Technically, there was an export ban on medicines from Holland’s neutral territory, but the NFC got a special exemption. As WWI kept dragging along, it became harder and harder for the NFC to get a hold of raw materials. Still they kept providing both parties – the Allies and the Axis powers – with hundreds of kilos of cocaine.
Experts have different views on the amount that was trafficked during war years. Writer Conny Braam researched the NCF for her book The Cocaine Salesman (an interesting novel about a man working for the factory). She calculated a number of approximately 30,000 kilos exported per year between 1914 and 1918, making Holland the world’s greatest producer of cocaine in those years. Hans Bosman, former head of chemistry at NCF, obtained his doctorate on the subject. He has estimated the annual export numbers much lower, somewhere between 500 and 900 kilos between 1910 and 1917. Which would make Holland less of a big player than Germany. Both agree though, that plenty of cocaine was exported to both sides of the front.
Soldiers on the front in World War I
After the war, the production on the Duivendrechtsekade continued, but the Opium Act of 1919 determined that cocaine was only allowed to be produced by companies with a permit. The Opium Act was further amended in 1928, now stating that cocaine was only allowed to be produced for medicinal purposes. As the substance started losing its importance as a medicine, the demand for it dwindled. For a while, the NFC focused on producing morphine and heroin. In the Second World War, the Nazis took over the plant to make ephedrine, one of the raw materials for crystal meth (also check out: ‘Strung Out. Nazis & Crystal Meth’). But the greatest hit in latter years would prove novocaine, which would be used by dentists for another few decades.
‘In 1975, the name was changed. Cocaine now had such a bad name, that it couldn’t be part of the factory’s official title anymore’
In 1962, the Dutch Cocaine Factory closed its doors, after a takeover by the Royal Zwanenburg Organon (KZO). Many of the activities were relocated to Apeldoorn. In 1972, the stock corporation – which no longer had the core task of ‘fabricating chemical products, mainly cocainum hydrochloricum and byproducts and the sales thereof’ – ceased to exist. In 1975, the name was changed to NFC Holding, Inc. with AkzoNobel as its parent enterprise. Cocaine had gotten such a bad name, it couldn’t be part of the factory’s title anymore.
How many kilos were precisely produced, and whether Holland was or wasn’t the greatest producer in wartime is something historians will probably be bickering about for years to come. What remains a fact is that the NFC profited from the First World War, with help from the Dutch government. A peculiar history, especially when you take into account what Holland’s current demssionary Minister of Justice has said about cocaine dealers and users in recent years. What was that again, about them having blood on their hands?