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January 21, 2006

Coca, Morales, Bolivia, the World

I have to admit that I don't believe the USG's "War on Drugs" is effective or a good use of taxpayer money. It's not that I think all drugs should be legal; it's just that I think the bulk of our money should go to curbing addiction and lifting people up from whatever situation causes them to be prone to addiction (poverty, mental illness, natural proclivity for addiction, etc.) In other words, I believe curbing demand is much more effective than burning crop fields and criminalizing poor farmers. Additionally, I think the USG creates far too many rhetorical wars and instead should be creating healthy, peaceful cultural touchstones.

WaPo fronts an interesting article on Bolivian President-Elect Evo Morales and coca production. Like most articles written for US consumption, Monte Reel mentions the indigenous use of coca in passing and provides much more detail about how coca becomes cocaine, that evil and illicit drug. The article is sorta an evergreen - it doesn't really provide any new, immediate information. I suppose it is very scary to Washington types that the former head of the coca growers union is about to become Bolivia's first indigenous president.

I believe understanding the customary use of coca in South America is more useful for understanding Morales' position, than is a description of chemical process of creating cocaine. As a child of the 80s, I initially found it hard to believe that coca was really part of any culture - since cocaine (and crack) are such Evil, Destructive Drugs. As a more open-minded adult, I've met people who grew up drinking coca tea (in Peru) and enjoy chewing coca leaves when they visit their family. According to Wikipedia, coca was central to cultures in the pre-Incan and Incan periods:

The coca plant was so central to the worldview of the Yunga and Aymara tribes of South America that distance was often measured in units called "cocada", which signified the number of mouthfuls of coca that one would chew while walking from one point to another. Cocada can also be used as a measurement of time, meaning the amount of time it takes for a mouthful of coca to lose its flavor and activity. In testament of the significance of coca to indigenous cultures, it is widely believed that the word "coca" most likely originally simply meant "plant," in other words, coca was not just a plant but the plant.
Clearly, this plant has roots far deeper than the 1980s. And I respect cultural differences enough to not pass judgment on the use of coca leaves, especially since it seems to be a relatively mild stimulant in its natural form.

Another interesting thing I learned from Wikipedia is that coca is still used to create Coca-Cola. Originally, Coke used green coca leaves, with their naturally occurring cocaine (and other substances, including nicotine). Now, Coke creates cocaine with the coca leaves - sells the cocaine to pharmaceutical companies - and uses the "spent" leaves as an ingredient in its secret formula. So, today Coke contains less coca than it once did. (By the way, cocaine was never an ingredient in Coke.)

So, what's the problem with Bolivian coca manufacturing? The USG believes that a significant amount of it is exported as cocaine to Brazil, therefore negating all of the cultural uses for coca. And even though the USG foots the bill for the eradication of coca and supports farmers who transition to other export crops, the farmers are weary of making the move. Here's a quote from a coca farmer, the last paragraph of the WaPo story:

"We have to grow coca because it's the only crop that brings enough money to feed our families," said UreƱa, 54, who paused from sweeping his leaves to fill the plastic bag of a passerby who wanted a little for chewing. "And with Evo, I think things are going to get a lot better."
Simple economics have always favored grey and black market activities - those items almost always provide more income than completely legal substitutes. I hope that more studies will be done on the health effects of coca and if possible, it will be accepted as an legitimate ingredient just as poppy seeds are legal, even though heroin is not.

Posted by cj at January 21, 2006 5:20 PM


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