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The Coca Leaf Is not Cocaine

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Ignore Miami Vice, Scarface and other Hollywoodish stylized representations of cocaine, and consider for a moment the South American plant that grows on Andean hillsides. The bush before all the chemical processing required to transform it into the white powder that the world's populace masochistically desires, and that fuels an illicit billion dollar industry: Erythroxylum Coca.

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La hoja de coca no es cocaina. “The coca leaf is not cocaine” is a common refrain expressed by supporters of the coca plant for its – lets get it straight – traditional uses. For some indigenous Andeans coca is inseparable from their cosmology, and structures their societies, similar to corn for some peoples of the Meso-American region. There is no life, no universe without it. Beyond its spiritual meaning, coca offers numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.

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Traditional medical uses of coca, supported by modern medical analysis, are foremost as a stimulant to overcome fatigue, hunger, and thirst. It is considered particularly effective against altitude sickness, used as an anesthetic to alleviate the pain of headache, rheumatism, wounds and sores, etc. Indigenous use of coca has also been reported as a treatment for malaria, ulcers and asthma. It is also used to improve digestion, to guard against bowel laxity, and is also known as an aphrodisiac.

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Traces of coca have been found in mummies dating to 3000 years ago, and extensive archeological evidence for the chewing of coca leaves dates back at least to the sixth century A.D. Way before Studio 54. Coca didn't really go global until the late 19th century, and really made the A-list when is shared main billing with cola in well-received production known as…Coca-Cola. The Coca-Cola Company to this day still uses coca as part of their secret recipe, legally purchasing hundreds of metric tons of dried coca leaves via a government-licensed intermediary.

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Legal issues surrounding the illicit cocaine trade has stifled the use of coca outside of South America. The controversial 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs strictly limits its cultivation and use, effectively stifling production of coca for legal purposes, at great harm to the indigenous populations of northwestern South America. Nevertheless, coca is still used ubiquitously as an ingredient in teas, sodas, candies, flour and other food and beverage uses.

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Change, however, may be coming. The ascent of nationalist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela has led to increased calls for the loosening of international restrictions placed on coca in the name of creating more economic opportunities for the impoverished citizens of these nations. In fact, Bolivian president Evo Morales rose to prominence as the leader of this country's coca growers union, and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

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While a world with legal coca as a mainstream commodity seems unlikely, it isn't a farfetched notion to imagine a niche for it similar to yerba mate's presence as a specialty tea or as an ingredient in other drinks besides Coca-Cola. With some vigilant oversight and regulation, the coca plant, and the nations where it grows, could eventually wipe itself clean of the negative stain on its reputation. AER

Images courtesy of Brasil 2, Michael Tyler, Dado Galdieri, Globevisions, and lukegibbs.com.

 

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  • Debo Hobo

    August 18, 2008

    Thank you for this post. I didn’t fully know that the leaves offered other benefits besides the obvious.

  • Jesse

    August 16, 2008

    All drugs should be legalized. It would demystify them, not change the amount of drug use, in fact it might lower it by de-glamorizing drugs. The greatest benefit would be to create enough tax money to educate and improve the lives of millions and convert the underground drug trade into another capitalist economy without gangs. A no brainer to me, not sure why governments can’t see it this way.

  • oryx

    August 15, 2008

    amazing what the government will criminalize when they can’t tax something

Any comments?