Infamous Colombia: The Coca Plant

Infamous Colombia is a series of posts intended to talk about high profile issues and bring the country’s positive contributions to the world into the discussion.

I remember when I was a kid, I heard a classmate say that Coca Cola used to have cocaine in it. The truth of it is that Coca Cola used to contain coca until 1903, hence the name, Coca Cola. I remember it sounding so dangerous and so crazy. Why would a company put cocaine in their product? Was it like the tobacco industry using all sorts of crazy chemicals to get you addicted? I think my Grandma may have said something about a Coca Cola cocaine addiction conspiracy theory come to think of it……

When you visit a South American country such as Peru, Bolivia or Colombia, don’t be alarmed by the presence or use of the coca plant and know that it’s recognized as a medicinal herb to treat many different ailments – it’s just not legal, which is even more confusing.

If you’re new to Colombia, you will see coca products in random tourist stops and natural markets and it might be a little confusing. If you visit the Gold Museum you will learn about how the indigenous Andeans used to eat the leaves crushed with lime during ritual and religious ceremony – many of their tools for preparing the coca and lime are on display. Farmers, or campesinos, chew the raw leaves for energy during a long workday in the fields. Campesinos and city folk alike drink coca tea, sometimes alone or mixed with other medicinal herbs for gastrointestinal relief and other common ailments. The plant has been a part of rituals and traditional folk medicine for over 8000 years according to what we currently know. When you visit a South American country such as Peru, Bolivia or Colombia, don’t be alarmed by the presence or use of the coca plant and know that it’s recognized as a medicinal herb to treat many different ailments – it’s just not legal, which is even more confusing. The UN declared coca plants as an illegal commodity in 1961, stating that “the Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated.” Peru signed but with a clause to not criminalize it, making them the original leader in coca reform. Peru and Bolivia over the last decade have openly refused these bans completely as it has been part of tradition for years to chew, brew and crush coca leaves. Both Peru and Bolivia have been regulating the industry and using the plants in a wide variety of non-illicit products such as fertilizer and flour. Bolivia expelled the DEA in 2008 and legalized the coca plant. Since then there has been less violence, less coca crops and less cocaine production although the US is still adamant that Bolivia has “failed” in the war on drugs. One important part they escaped by legalizing coca is the highly controversial spraying of glyphosate to destroy the crops which is part of the US funded Plan Colombia. Bolivia currently boasts a strain of coca, Boliviana negra, which is resistant to glyphosate, although the source of the plant is unknown. Two theories on its origins are peer to peer selective breeding by farmers or a laboratory, but the peer to peer breeding currently has more scientific evidence on its side.

Despite efforts to destroy the coca plant, reports suggest that distribution is at an all-time high especially in Colombia. It’s quite something to think of the billions of dollars spent by the US and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Colombia due to the war on drugs alongside a brutal civil war triggered by social and economic unrest. Oddly enough, when the Spanish came to conquer South America in the early 1500’s, they tried to eradicate the plant as well with no luck. They then tried to capitalize on it by turning it into a commodity and even a currency for workers.

Coca was an interesting subject to the scientific community until cocaine was isolated and extracted to make the illicit drug. This saw the raw plant banned and unable to be exported/imported for research since the UN criminalization in 1961. Because of the highly addictive and negative qualities of cocaine use, nobody wanted to touch it in terms of research and interest faded.

Bogota – Colombia, November 2, 2019 – Products of coca sold at a market in Bogota, Colombia

There were some studies that claim that the use of whole coca proved to have some major benefits to the Andean people working in high altitudes. It was shown to inhibit the overproduction of red blood cells which causes altitude sickness, to make its recipient endure colder temperatures if by only a few degrees and reduce dizziness and fatigue related to high altitudes. It was also found to inhibit hunger pains as it can be difficult to get a full meal in harsh high-altitude conditions, whether for economic reasons or the logistics of obtaining food. The reason for these benefits is thought to be from nutrients and the many different alkaloids in the leaves, one of them being cocaine. These benefits could only come from the consumption of the whole raw coca leaf which is roughly 50 times less powerful than the illicit drug cocaine, yet medicinally has more strength when the alkaloids are all working together. These claims are however argued to be random results not fully studied enough while considering other factors such as possessing specific genes or preexisting conditions.

Currently the country is proposing to continue to eradicate the coca plant in large quantities in response to threats from the US to cut off all foreign aid, loans and trade if these efforts were not massively increased.

There are calls right now for Colombia to follow suit with Peru and Bolivia in regulating and decriminalizing which could potentially have the same positive results as Bolivia. Currently the country is proposing to continue to eradicate the coca plant in large quantities in response to threats from the US to cut off all foreign aid, loans and trade if these efforts were not massively increased. Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is lending his philanthropic hand in the endeavor. He has already pledged 310 million dollars to help build infrastructure for impoverished coca communities. The money will go towards roads, security and training to switch crops to cocoa. For now, unfortunately, it appears that coca will continue to be a controversial topic for Colombia.

Jenny Sine
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Jenny Sine

Canadian living in Bogotá, Colombia giving private tours to share the natural beauty of South America, studying philosophy and growing food 3000 meters above sea level.

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