The Unfairly Maligned Coca Leaf
Consider a distinctly US American product. Let’s say hot dogs, invented in 1870 on Coney Island and enjoyed in our great nation ever since. But in 2015, Korean scientists learn how to distill the noble hot dog into a lethal drug. Hotdogaine. International hot dog trafficking becomes a lucrative business and, over decades, people across Asia become addicted to hotdogaine, even while aw-shucks, overall-wearin’ Americans continue to enjoy the hot dog in its “natural” form.
You see where I’m going with this? In 2030, the world’s sole superpower (China) pushes a hot dog ban through the UN. As part of its war on hotdogaine, it supplies the US Government with planes to fire bomb hot dog factories. A quintessential part of American life has come under attack. Do you think we’d be pissed off?
Well, the reality is even worse for Bolivia. The coca leaf has been an integral part of Andean culture for centuries, and is sacred among indigenous people. Coca has important medical properties, such as fighting altitude sickness, especially useful to those living in the mountains. Since pre-Incan times, the coca leaf has been used in religious ceremonies, brewed into teas, and chewed as a mild stimulant. A stimulant about on the same level as coffee.
But then Europeans “discover” South America, rush in, rape the Andean nations of their natural resources, murder and enslave its indigenous people, and install themselves as kings and presidents. And then, just to further piss on an already humiliated people, they take the Andes’ most important and sacred plant, and figure out how to distill cocaine from it. After discovering that their new drug can be deadly, they freak out and declare that cocaine must be eradicated from the earth. They demand that Andean nations destroy their coca fields … crops which constitute the only livelihood for legions of farmers. Do you think Bolivia should be pissed off?
It’s ridiculous. Shameful. Jürgen and I have chewed coca leaves a few times since arriving in Bolivia.. They’re really as mild as we had read. You feel a slight increase in energy, which lasts for an hour or so. Even among the most heavy users, chewing coca presents no risk of addiction, nor does it have any dangerous consequences. These are medical facts, proven over and over again. The USA and Europe have no business telling Bolivian farmers what they can and can’t grow.
And they have even less business sponsoring the mass eradication of coca plants, using dangerous chemicals that seep into the ground. Think about that for a second. Westerners invent a new drug, which a small percentage of people enjoy mildly poisoning themselves with. Then western governments react by seriously poisoning a region which they had already plundered and impoverished.
Under Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, Bolivia has stepped to the forefront of the fight to restore the coca leaf’s good name. As president, Morales has scaled back the eradication program, allowing farmers to grow a small amount of coca legally: the amount thought to be needed for traditional domestic use. Of course, these efforts have been frowned upon by the US.
I’m proud to be from the USA. But man, there are a lot things which irk me about my country, and this is one of the worst. In our ridiculous crusade against drugs, we’re ignorantly convinced of our own righteousness and completely unmoved by the legitimate concerns of other cultures. At the very least, we should be supporting Bolivia’s attempt to remove the coca leaf from the UN Convention on Narcotic Dugs. But nope, we just blindly oppose this mild and self-evidently innocent proposal. Just close our eyes and screech “WAR ON DRUGS WAR ON DRUGS” at the top of our lungs, expecting everything to be hunky-dory. The whole thing makes us an intellectual mockery.
Sigh. As always, the first step is education. I doubt many of my countrymen care too much about coca eradication programs in Latin America, but we should. The Transnational Institute has a useful primer to the misconceptions about coca. We are clumsily stomping all over the historic culture of another people. It has to stop.