Two friends of mine each visited South America. One went to Bolivia, the other to Peru. Both spent a significant amount of time hiking through the hills and peaks of the Andes. The Andean mountain range is the world’s second highest mountain range (only the Himalayas go higher) so it’s understandable that running around the Pacific Northwest had not quite prepared them for the trek. Both times, the locals recommended that they chew coca leaves. They assented and both immediately felt better, more energetic, and less fatigued. They continued running around South America and eventually returned to the United States.
It seems like a simple story on the surface, but science and politics surrounding those small round leaves is actually much more complicated.
Coca, a thin, bushy plant has grown in Central and South America for millions of years and is one of the most notorious and controversial plants in the region – the coca plant is the base ingredient in cocaine. Dried coca leaves are macerated with sulfuric acid and ground into a paste before undergoing a long process of chemical treatment featuring compounds such as ammonia, kerosene, and lime. During these steps, various chemicals naturally found in the leaves are slowly turned into the familiar white powder we know as cocaine.
In order to stem production of this narcotic, various governments have tackled the problem at the root, prohibiting or even trying to exterminate the plant. Cocaine is a dangerous narcotic and the drug trade has given rise to violent cartels and international crime.
But there’s an important distinction here. What my friends tried in South America was not cocaine. They did not become addicted, nor did they suffer the extreme physiological effects associated with it.
Chewing coca leaves produces much milder effects than cocaine, acting only as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant. After all, while they are the base of cocaine, the compounds in coca leaves are still chemically different, in smaller quantities, and absorbed by the body much more slowly than cocaine (as a general rule, eating any drug is substantially slower than inhaling it).
Furthermore, while producing cocaine is harmful to society, chewing coca is actually an old cultural practice that’s been around nearly as long as civilization. Coca leaves have been found buried with the Moche mummies of Chile and widespread cultivation was practiced by the Inca elite and seen as having a divine origin. After European conquest, the Catholic Church, perceiving coca as a problematic link to the native’s own religion and an obstacle to conversion, tried to outlaw the plant. But Spanish landowners, seeing how important its effects were on their workforce, beseeched the crown to step in on their behalf. King Philip II subsequently declared that the plant was essential to the welfare of the natives and that the church could not prohibit its use. In modern times, multiple groups have stepped forward to promote the benefits of traditional coca use, citing medicinal, cultural, and nutritional benefits.
The governments of Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela have all followed suit, resisting outside pressures to ban cultivation, even while they crack down on cocaine production. Coca leaves, in any form, are heavily regulated in the United States and most of Europe as a restricted substance. The only major exceptions are for medicinal production and, amusingly. Coca-Cola is famous for having previously used cocaine in their formula and, while they haven’t used cocaine in their drinks since around 1900, Coca-Cola still relies on other compounds in coca-leaves to help flavor their drinks.