History Of Drugs

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The Wonders of the Coca LeafBy Alan Forsberg(last updated January 21, 2011)This article briefly describes the beneficial qualities, constructive uses, and profound cultural significance of the cocaleaf for the indigenous Andean peoples highlighting examples from Bolivia – a country in the vanguard of the defenseof the sacred leaf. More specifically I will describe the natural coca leaf’s renowned nutritional and therapeuticqualities, explain how coca has been used for millennia as a ritual tool for divination, social interaction, and as a linkto deities and the mother earth that they worship. I will also explain how coca became institutionalized as a keycultural symbol of solidarity, identity, and resistance for the native Andean people in the face of colonial andneocolonial domination. I will then describe the implications of the recent boom in the economic value of coca causedby the increased demand from the cocaine industry, combined with pressures to completely outlaw and eradicate thecoca leaf. These contradictory foreign demands for the drug cocaine and for the prohibition of the natural coca leafthreaten to deprive the traditional consumers of their coca, thus creating a powerful social force of rebellion arising indefense of the traditional meanings and uses of coca in the face of threats to this traditional way of life and the veryidentity of indigenous Andeans. I conclude this historical analysis by bringing us up to date on constructive uses ofthe leaf in wider society and the current struggle to recognize the coca leaf as an intangible heritage of humanity andaccess to its many beneficial qualities a basic human right for everyone.The Historical Use Value of Coca as a Food and MedicineArchaeological evidence has confirmed that the coca leaf has been cultivated and used by the indigenous people of theAndes region for at least 4,000-5,000 years while other estimates put this as far back as 20,000 years. By the time ofthe Spanish colonial conquest, coca use extended all the way from what is today Costa Rica and Venezuela, throughthe Brazilian Amazon (coca’s place of origin) and on down to Paraguay, northern Argentina and Chile. (Abruzzese1989 p.95, Esch 2007, Henman 2008, ADEPCOCA 2006 p.3, LAB 1983 p.17, Forsberg 1992 pp.72-73).Today, “Coca chewing and drinking of coca tea is carried out daily by millions of people in the Andes” (TNI 2008a).Unlike the recent destructive1use of the pure alkaloid cocaine2, the long history of the coca leaf in the Andes beencharacterized by a constructive use of this alkaloid (in extremely low doses) along with a myriad of other nutritionaland medicinal substances found in the leaf. Many studies of coca have shown the leaf to be rich in many importantvitamins and minerals3which are not readily available to the mountain peasants due to the difficulty of cultivating orobtaining fresh vegetables in the Andean highlands. Coca thus serves as a non-perishable “dry salad” in the mountainpeasants’ starchy diet. Since this population often suffers from lactose intolerance, coca provides one of the fewsources of calcium available to the peasants of the altiplano. Compared with other foods, coca has been scientificallyproven to be one of the most (if not the most4) nutritious crops grown in the region. Coca has more vitamin A thancarrots, twice the calcium of milk, and is also rich in phosphorus, potassium, iron, vitamins B2 and E, carbohydrates,fiber, and proteins. Chewing 100 grams of coca is enough to satisfy the nutritional needs of an adult for 24 hours.While Henman & Metaal (2009) point out that daily coca consumption rarely exceeds one fourth that amount, cocacan still be considered an important food supplement. (Henman & Metaal 2009, Mittrany 2007, Duke et al 1975,Weatherford 1987 p.416, Hurtado 2004b, Hurtado 1995 ch.2, Mittrany 2007, Plowman 1986 pp.6-7, Kurtz-Phelan2006, Aliaga 2007, Friedman-Rudovsky 2008, cocagrowers.org 2005, Hausfather 2009, Vidaurre 2001, Forsberg1992 pp.73-77).While some have claimed in the past that “coca chewing results in loss of appetite and reduced consumption of food”(Buck 1968), a study called Coca Chewing and Diet by Burchard (1992) shows that coca chewing and foodconsumption are not only complementary activities, but that chewers tend to eat more and have better overall nutritioncompared to non-chewers in the same survey (see also Bolton 1976, Forsberg 1992 p.78).In some ways coca could perhaps be compared to a fine wine taken with meals. Indeed, the coca chewers themselveshave their particular preferences for the variety of coca they like to chew. According to Parkerson (1989 p.278), inBolivia most chewers prefer coca which comes from the traditional growing area of the Yungas (higher in altitudethan the Chapare) as it tastes sweeter because of its lower cocaine content (Carter et al. 1980a p.164, Forsberg 1992p.77).Given the widespread problem of poor nutrition in the region, it would be wise to consider the potential of coca tocombat hunger. Maria Eugenia Tenorio, Bolivia’s best known coca cook explains that “If Bolivians just startedcooking with coca; they could solve most of the problems of malnutrition here.” The current government of Bolivia isimplementing a project to expand coca leaf production to produce coca flour to supplement various food products.Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca even “suggested the leaf be used in school lunches across Bolivia,allowing Bolivian children regular exposure to the leaf’s nutrients” (Esch 2007, ADB 2007, pp.30-34). Unfortunately,the confusion between natural coca leaf and the highly refined drug cocaine initially caused a negative reaction tothese proposals amongst the uniformed public. Scientific evidence indicates that eating food products made with cocaflour results in negligible absorption of the leaf’s alkaloids5. This is because when coca is cooked most of the cocainealkaloid is lost as it cannot withstand such high temperatures. The minor traces of cocaine remaining are broken downand metabolized by saliva and the digestive juices of the human body (Arie 2006, Khukita 2007, Aliaga 2007).Chewing coca6has long been the most common way to consume the leaf. Much research has shown that this practicealso provides economic benefits because coca use increases worker productivity7in agriculture, fishing, and mining.Even when chewed, natural coca leaf is only a mild stimulant. Taxi, bus, and long-haul truck drivers find chewingessential to safe night driving as it helps to keep them awake and alert; many college students and intellectuals assertthat coca chewing allows them to concentrate on their studies and that it improves their comprehension (Argandoña2006, Keane 2007a, Hausfather 2009).Coca tea is very popular throughout the country as a medicinal beverage and can be found in virtually everyhousehold and “is served everywhere, including the finest hotels and the U.S. Embassy.” In Bolivia’s business sectoroffices, coca tea is often served rather than coffee. It is perfectly legal and is “often given to visitors, like the pope,who suffer from altitude sickness . . . [and] is used for discomforts ranging from headaches to labor pains8” (Reporton the Americas 1989 p.28, Ledebur 2008 p.2, Shultz 2008, Forsberg 1992 pp.77).The medicinal qualities of natural coca make it the preferred remedy for a surprisingly wide variety of ailments. Cocaleaves “are used as infusions, poultices or dusts . . . they are very effective when people have dizziness or head aches,throat affections and stomach problems . . . (and) in order to relieve rheumatism and bone dislocations”(cocamama.com). In addition to its ability to reduce pain, coca is an effective antidepressant and mood elevator. Richin soluble calcium and phosphorous, coca helps prevent osteoporosis and tooth decay. Coca is also an effective tonicfor cardio-vascular health. As a regulator of blood sugar, it is used to treat diabetes, and has slimming propertieswhich can help reduce obesity (Henman & Metaal 2009, cocamama.com, Silvia Rivera in Knoll 2007, Langman2006b, Plowman 1986 p.8, Martin 1970; Fabrega and Manning 1972; Hulshof 1978; Carter et al. 1980a & 1980b;Weil 1981; Grinspoon and Bakalar 1981).But these beneficial qualities and uses of coca do not adequately reflect the true importance of coca for the Andeanpeople, or why coca cannot be considered just another commodity to be bought and sold according to world marketprices.

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