The psychomotor stimulant cocaine is inactivated primarily by hydrolysis to benzoylecgonine, the major urinary metabolite of the drug. A non-specific carboxylesterase was purified from human liver that catalyzes the hydrolysis of the methyl ester group of cocaine to form benzoylecgonine. In the presence of ethanol, the enzyme also catalyzes the transesterification of cocaine producing the pharmacologically active metabolite cocaethylene (benzoylecgonine ethyl ester). The carboxylesterase obeys simple Michaelis-Menten kinetics with Km values of 116 microM for cocaine and 43 mM for ethanol. The enzymatic activity suggests that it may play an important role in regulating the detoxication of cocaine and in the formation of the active metabolite cocaethylene. Additionally, the enzyme catalyzes the formation of ethyloleate from oleic acid and ethanol. The carboxylesterase was purified from autopsy liver by gel filtration, chromatofocusing, ion-exchange, and hydrophobic interaction chromatography to purity by SDS-PAGE and agarose gel isoelectric focusing. The subunit molecular weight was determined to be 59,000 and the native molecular weight was estimated to be 170,000 from a calibrated gel filtration column, suggesting that the active enzyme is a trimer. The isoelectric point was approximately 5.8. Digestion of carbohydrate residues on the protein with an acetylglucosaminidase plus binding to several lectins indicates that the enzyme is glycosylated. The esterase was cleaved with two proteases, and the amino acid sequences from fourteen peptides were used to search GenBank. Two identical matches were found corresponding to carboxylesterase cDNAs from human liver and lung.