21 August 2011

In defense of coca

Coca tea.

Coca is ubiquitous in the Bolivian Andes. Because of President Evo Morales' policies and the work of indigenous lobby groups, the ancient and traditional practice of cultivating coca is once again flourishing after decades of being driven underground.

The once-sacred, often-reviled act of chewing the leaves is now regarded as mildly trashy by the upper echelons of Bolivian society, but little more than that; coca leaves are put into everything from soaps to booze for gleeful tourists to chuckle about at Bolivian outdoor markets and mate de coca, coca tea, is served everywhere as an effective remedy for the nausea, dizziness, and sleeplessness that comes while adjusting to the altitude on "el techo del mundo," the roof of the world.

Coca, however, is not so well-regarded outside South America. It has become synonymous with one of the plant's more notorious alkaloids -- cocaine, of course -- that seems less suited to the great tan sweeps and valleys of the altiplano or even the bustling, diesel-tinged hills and stairs of La Paz and more part of the hollow-eyed pseudoglamour of a Los Angeles nightclub. Its reputation does bring travellers to La Paz, lured by the promise of the unusually high-quality coke sold out of the San Pedro prison, who do nothing but sleep all day and talk, drink, and snort line after line all through the night.

But, as any paceña will tell you, "La coca no es la cocaina" -- coca is not cocaine. If you visit the Museo de Coca in La Paz's witch's market, you learn the history of la coca and its connection to pre-Hispanic practices, and how the Catholic church did its best to distance the native Quechua and Aymara from their traditions so they would be better prepared to accept Biblical beliefs, or a reasonably syncretic facsimile thereof.

The debate on what to do about coca and cocaine still rages within North and South America. The United States routinely condemns its existence, but the US -- 5 percent of the world's population -- consumes half the world's illicit cocaine.

It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, cocaine was prescribed for everything from ennui to obesity. Sigmund Freud used it heavily, extolling its virtues as both an antidepressant and a cure for morphine addiction. In fact, he wrote in 1884:

The psychic effect of cocaïnum muriaticum in doses of 0.05–0.10g consists of exhilaration and lasting euphoria, which does not differ in any way from the normal euphoria of a healthy person.... One senses an increase of self-control and feels more vigorous and more capable of work; on the other hand, if one works, one misses that heightening of the mental powers which alcohol, tea, or coffee induce. One is simply normal, and soon finds it difficult to believe that one is under the influence of any drug at all....

Normal is, however, relative. That same year, he wrote in a rather frenzied letter to his fiancee,

...I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a little girl who doesn't eat enough or a big strong man with cocaine in his body. In my last serious depression I took cocaine again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.

It seems that Dr. Freud was collecting more than just literature. As cocaine began to catch on in Europe and the United States, it was prescribed for more and more problems, presumably by doctors who were also heavily into their own supply.

Vin Mariani was also a big part of the newly created world. The wildly popular cocaine-infused wine was created by a French chemist named Angelo Mariani in 1863. It was sold as a tonic, and fairly flew off the shelves. In 1885, an American named John Pemberton caught on to the craze and started making his own coca wine.

Unfortunately for Pemberton, he lived in Atlanta, so his enormously successful career as a coca wine distributor never happened.  It was nipped in the bud just a few months later, when Fulton County passed prohibition legislation. Piqued, Pemberton reformulated the coca wine recipe, removed the alcohol, kept the cocaine, and remarketed it as a sweet tonic called Coca-Cola.

Eventually, as cocaine's addictive properties became apparent, its use in "tonic" drinks and as a panacea for mental, physical, and spiritual disorders was discontinued.

But, as I already mentioned, cocaine is not the same as coca. The leaves, which in their natural form have few negative properties and many therapeutic ones, are still heavily regulated and classified in the United States as a Schedule II drug, indistinguishable from cocaine: Illegal for recreational use, but appropriate for some medical uses. That means coca tea or coca leaves can be seized and impounded at the American border. "La coca no es la cocaina," sure, but you try explaining that to Customs officials at the American border as they're taking away your twist-tied little baggies of leaves and leading you off to a secret room in the bowels of LAX. Despite the fact that many of the raw materials needed to turn coca into cocaine are supplied by American manufacturers, coca leaves remain illegal.

All this background and these "therapeutic" claims may sound like nothing more than an attempt to justify a flirtation with an illegal substance, so consider this: There is one company in the United States authorized to import this otherwise-tightly-controlled substance. Illinois-based Stepan Company imports several hundred metric tons of coca leaves from Peru and Bolivia per year, extracts the cocaine to sell to pharmaceutical companies, and uses the leaves to make a syrup.

If you guessed that concoction is part of Coca-Cola's secret recipe to this day, give yourself a pat on the back. You won't find it on the ingredients list, though. It's just part of that mysterious but innocuous-sounding nutritional category: "Natural Flavors."