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The Coca Plant Paradox

A Simple Little Leaf with a Complicated History in South America

As the sun rises on day two of our Inca Trail hike in Peru our local guide Oscar gathers us around to demonstrate proper coca leaf etiquette. “Each day that we chew coca leaves,” he says, “it is our custom to give thanks to the gods before we begin.” He picks out three large leaves and blows on them, in the direction of a mountain, before holding them up in the wind. He gives thanks for the gift to the god of the earth, the god of the water, and the god of the closest mountain. Then we each wrap the leaves around black lime powder and stuff them in our cheek, prepared for the steep hike to a nearby peak.

When I worked for a record company in the latter half of the 1980s I saw a far different ritual attached to the word “coca.” That one that involved mirrors, rolled dollar bills, and parties that went on all night. Now, an ancient culture and the world’s most powerful military are continually at odds over the uses of this common-looking shrub.

One Tough Plant

Erythroxylon coca is a densely-leafed plant native to the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains in South America. It typically thrives in warm, moist, frost-free valleys starting at about 4,800 feet above sea level. The leaves are rich in vitamins, protein, calcium, iron, and fiber.

In its native habitat, the coca plant is resistant to drought and disease. It is tough and doesn’t need irrigation. The plant is impervious to insects; bugs that chew on it will overdose and die. Further up the food chain, the effects are milder. Large animals sometimes make a habit of nibbling coca leaves with no ill effects.

When the Andean people chew them it is part of a ritual or to provide stamina and alertness. The effect is far from dramatic. No matter how many leaves I stuffed in while hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, I couldn’t manage to produce any kind of a “buzz.” The strongest effect I would liken to a strong cup of coffee, minus the shakes and the comedown afterwards.

The Incas used coca in all kinds of magical ceremonies, initiation rites, and for healing physical and psychic woes. When I looked at ancient Inca Emperor images in the museums around Cusco the Emperor was pictured carrying only one object—a coca pouch around the neck, close to the heart. Native travelers sometimes described a journey in terms of the number of mouthfuls of coca typically chewed in making the trip.

Coca was and is ever-present throughout an Andean person’s life. Before giving birth, a woman drinks and chews coca to hasten the labor and ease the pain. Instead of giving out cigars, relatives celebrate a birth by chewing the coca leaf together. When a young man wants to marry a girl, he offers coca to her father. When someone dies, people drink coca tea at the wake and place coca leaves in the coffin before burial.

From the Mountains to the Lab

Throughout the Andes coca leaves were used for close to 5,000 years before European scientists extracted cocaine from coca and Merck started cranking it out by the pound for tonics. In Peru the coca plant is an ingredient in fine chocolates, soft drinks, soap, toothpaste, chewing gum, and hard candy. In towns all over the Cusco region, I found coca leaves for sale in grocery and convenience stores, as common and essential as sugar or salt.

When the Spanish conquistadors took over much of South America, the Catholic Church denounced coca leaf chewing and called it “an agent of idolatry and sorcery.” They soon relented after the conquerors caught on to the leaf’s benefits, however. The Spanish leaders needed lots of laborers for their mines and found the coca leaves to be a great motivator and stimulant. “The herb is so nutritious and invigorating that the Indians labor whole days without anything else,” said one report. In typical church fashion for the time, the Bishop of Cusco then mandated a 10 percent tax on all sales.

In some ways, little has changed in the Andes from those days in the 1500s. As the manager of the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Peru gave me a tour of his property we talked about the role of coca leaves in the local culture. “We bring in bags full of the stuff when we have construction going on,” he said. “If we didn’t, nothing would get done.”

Cocaine, on the other hand, was first devised as a painkiller only 150 years ago. The real success story for the drug was Vin Mariani, a palatable coca wine developed by Angelo Mariani in 1863. Soon Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stephenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and other literary luminaries all became fans, and Mariani was honored by kings and presidents from several continents. The product was even endorsed by two Popes and became the most popular prescription in the world.

Cocaine tonics proliferated by the turn of the century. A Sears, Roebuck and Co. ad said of their version, “It has been effectually proven that in the same space of time more than double the amount of work could be undergone when Peruvian Wine of Coca was used, and positively no fatigue experienced.”

Official approval of coca-based tonics began to decline as evidence of problems started to surface. In 1904, Coca-Cola removed the stimulating ingredient from their product. The drug was banned in the U.S. in 1914, after the U.S. Government reported 5,000 deaths in 1912 from snorting cocaine.

A Benign Plant’s Dark Cousin

The biggest problem with the coca plant’s chemical extract is its amazing level of addiction. If rats or monkeys are hooked up to a source of other drugs, they will use a lot but will still find time to sleep and eat. If they can freely self-administer cocaine, however, they will do virtually nothing else. When the drug is converted to crack, the intensity increases even more. Many U.S. inner city problems of the past two decades can be directly traced to crack cocaine: gang wars, the L.A. riots, drive-by shootings, crack babies, abandoned children, armed robbery spikes, and more.

According to The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances by Richard Rudgley, however, there’s a clear difference between refined cocaine and the original plant. “Distinguished visitors to Bolivia, including Pope John Paul II and Princess Anne, have drunk coca tea (mate de coca) as it is the traditional way of avoiding altitude sickness. Impartial and scientific investigations have shown that regular use of coca is not harmful and no major social problems are known to have resulted from its traditional, and millennia-long, use in the Andes.”

Tourists also consume a sizable quantity of coca leaves when visiting the Andes region. Even the most posh hotels in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador openly promote the drinking of coca tea as a way to lessen the effects of altitude sickness. It is served on a routine basis at official embassy functions. But if you bring a box of teabags back with you into the U.S., it will be confiscated at the airport during a search. Coca tea is to cocaine what poppy seed bagels are to heroin, but that distinction is lost at customs and in the government offices that are clumsily fighting the war on drugs.

This paradox is coming to the forefront in Bolivia, where newly elected president Evo Morales swung to power as a coca farmer vowing to stop all coca plant eradication in his country. To emphasize his point, he hired a city mayor who is also a coca farm owner to a post responsible for fighting drug trafficking. “What we say is no to drugs, but yes to the coca leaf,” said appointee Felipe Caceres, adding that he had no intention to stop growing the plant on his own plantation.

What’s the right battle plan then? I’m not in a position to know, but surely there is a better way to fight cocaine use besides the wholesale killing of a plant that is considered sacred by a culture spread across several countries.

Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.

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