The coca leaf is infamous in the United States. An essential component in the manufacture of Cocaine, it’s image in the public imagination has long been associated with the potentially dangerous and addictive qualities of the cocaine alkoloid. Expensive and damaging crusades of the American led “Drug War” has lasted for decades. The US has deliberately cultivated an attitude of guilt by association in regards to the coca leaf that culminated in a total prohibition of the plant in the Western world.
Large scale public damnation of Cocaine, by a species of trickle-down economics, was soon extended to the coca leaf as well. Throughout the 20th century the public in the United States and Europe were presented with a never-ending supply of myths and misinformation in the media. In the States the coca plant continues to be classed with its cousin as a Schedule 1 drug, and the many coca tea benefits were downplayed while the supposed dangers continue to be ceaselessly reported.
The prohibitive outlook of the US government is relatively new in comparison to how long Coca has been in use. Traces of coca discovered in prehistoric mummies evidence that the leaf has been used in South America for at least 3,000 years. There is even evidence that coca leaves have been chewed with lime for over 8,000 years in parts of northern Peru.
Making coca tea by steeping the leaves in water is a traditional part of the indigenous religion and culture of the Andes mountain region which is comprised of the modern states of Peru, Chili, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia. It is usually consumed with lime, baking soda, or ash of the quinoa plant to help activate the alkaloid.
The healthful coca tea benefits are attested to by many indigenous populations, where it is more popular than coffee. It is traditionally mixed with tobacco when chewed..The misapprehension of the myriads of coca tea benefits began as early as the first isolation of the cocaine alkaloid in Europe. In the 20th century the idea was energetically championed by the drug war policies of the United States.
In indigenous religions of the Andes the leaves are offered to Pachamama (the earth), Inti (the sun), or Apus (mountains) as a sacrament. The dregs of the tea are read as a form of divination or augury similar to the Medieval European practice of Tasseography. Sundry native populations in the Andes use the numerous coca tea benefits while engaged in their daily labors.
The crop was discovered by the Spanish during the age of exploration that followed the first voyage of Colombus in 1492. An early description of the many coca tea benefits outlined by the priest Blas Valera, a Peruvian born son of a conquistador, made its way to Europe in 1609:
Coca protects the body from many ailments, and our doctors use it in powdered form to reduce the swelling of wounds, to strengthen broken bones, to expel cold from the body or prevent it from entering, and to cure rotten wounds or sores that are full of maggots. And if it does so much for outward ailments, will not its singular virtue have even greater effect in the entrails of those who eat it?
The isolation of the cocaine alkaloid in 1855 by the German scientist Friedrich Gaedcke led to a slew of experiments to find possible medical applications for the alkaloid. The coca tea benefits were seldom explored, even by the tea loving English. Its analgesic or anesthetic effects were understood in Europe by 1879. It’s potentially hazardous effects, however, were only gradually uncovered.
Sigmund Freud was a famous proponent of the cocaine alkaloid, and popularized the mistaken belief that the drug was nonaddictive in his 1884 treatise “Über Coca.” He wrote that “No craving for the further use of cocaine appears after the first, or even after repeated taking of the drug.”
By 1885 cocaine was available in most druggist stores in the form of powder, rolled in cigarettes, even in liquid form packaged with a hypodermic needle. It was available without a prescription in the US until the passing of the Harrison Act in 1914.
After many years of use as a cure-all, the early 20th century saw cocaine, and by extension the coca plant, outlawed throughout much of the West. The exaggerated reputation of coca as a panacea in the 19th century gave way to an equally exaggerated moral panic in the 20th and even its medicinal use was curtailed in the US by the Jones-Miller Act of 1922.
The negative association of the coca plant with illegal drug use, addiction, and violence has kept the palliative effects of the plant buried under layers of propaganda. It would benefit both the United States and Latin America if the wool covering the eyes of the populations could be removed and the truth about the coca plant be made known to all.
Instead of combating the cultivation of the coca leaf in areas where it is traditional, the leaf could be legalized and exported. Not only would people all over the world be able to see for themselves how mild and salubrious the coca plant really is, but farmers in the developing countries of the Andes region would have a cash crop that would enable them to better pay for the education of their children while providing a general boon to the Andes’ economies.
As a result of a long tradition of cultivation, the native populations of the Andes have an in depth knowledge of the best way to grow the coca crop, like coffee, for export. In these areas coca grows easily and it is only the faulty logic and decades long propaganda efforts of the drug war that is keeping this mutually beneficial scenario from becoming a reality.
While the leaves of the coca plant are used in the manufacture of cocaine they are worlds apart from each other in almost every respect. An indigenous vender of the coca leaf in Bogota remarked to a newspaper that one would be equally successful getting wine drunk off of grapes as getting a cocaine buzz with coca leaves.
The association of a potentially beneficial medicine with a harmful drug must be ended in the West. Here are some common myths surrounding the plant, as well as some little known benefits. My sources for this information are contained in the links.
The coca leaf gets you high
Though there is a mild stimulant effect, the language of this myth is what is misleading. Few feel the need to acknowledge the “high” from coffee or tea. The easiest way to describe the coca tea benefits to someone who hasn’t tried them is to compare it to caffeine.
Unlike caffeine, there is a slight numbing effect in the mouth when the leaves are chewed, which while nice is something I don’t really classify with the multitudinous coca tea benefits. The numbing effect is less profuse than cocaine, whose strength as a numbing agent is sufficiently powerful that it was commonly used during the late 19th century and early 20th century as a local anesthetic.
Coca is habit forming
When this argument is brought up I can’t help but think that there is a double standard where the addictive potential of the state approved medicines (caffeine, alcohol, presently marijuana) is downplayed while the multiple coca tea benefits are systemically discounted and ignored. Caffeine has the same propensity to be habit forming.
It is customary in England to drink tea with a small snack between 4:00 and 6:00pm every day and no one yet has thought to stage an intervention. Another of the many coca tea benefits include drug rehabilitation programs to ease the recovery of Cocaine addicted persons.
A cure for altitude sickness
Chewing on the leaves is known to help with the discomfort accompanying the adjustment to the high altitudes of many cities in Peru. Though the amount of scientific research on the efficacy of this cure is so far minimal, every backpacker I know who has made the trek to Machu Pichu confirms the coca tea benefits reported by the Native Americans populations of the Andes.
The closest city to Machu Pichu is Cusco (elevation 3,400 m [11,200 ft]) and it is routine to chew on the leaves for the fist few days while adjusting. The many Coca tea benefits are available in numberless local shops as dried leaves and are far cheaper than a trip to the pharmacy.
The coca tea benefits are outweighed by the possible negative health effects
This myth is another confusion of the alkaloid cocaine with the plant it comes from. Coca in it’s natural state is harmless. The fact that potatoes sometimes contain neurotoxins or that apple seeds contain cyanide is no cause for alarm because the poisonous chemicals are innocuous when consumed in such small quantities.
Good for digestion
Have a stomach ache? The coca tea benefits anyone suffering from gastrointestinal distress. I have talked to many people here in Colombia who swear by it, and as in Peru it is cheaper than Pepto-Bismol. I myself have experienced how coca tea benefits and settles the stomach.
The growing popularity of holistic medicine, organic vegetables, and natural foods means that the United States is more ready than ever for cessation of the ban and an acknowledgement of the many ways coca tea benefits the human body.
High in vitamins and minerals
The leaves are a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, riboflavin, iron, phosphorous, and potassium.
Where to find: Markets all over Latin America. The tea that I tried came from a small shop in Parque Arvi. Just walk out of the metro cable cars down the road and it’s on your right after coming down the hill path lined with venders selling Jewelry, Botero miniatures, snacks, desserts, and clothing.
Upon walking into the shop I was offered a seat. A bowl of dried coca leaves was placed before me. A cup of tea and a shot of rum was offered to us free of charge. The people running the shop were friendly and helpful. I understood parts of the brief history of the coca plant that was delivered in Spanish.
We talked about the many parts of Colombia worth visiting. One of the owners of the shop recommended we visit Sante Fe, a pueblo a few hours outside of Medellín that contains many examples of colonial Spanish architecture. Trying out the coca tea benefits is not very expensive at 10.000 COP for 20 tea bags. Rum infused with coca leaves is also available for 20.000 COP.
The coca leaf is illegal
The coca leaf is legal in most Latin American countries. During the 20th century some Latin American governments outlawed the leaf in order to ally with the United state. By the 1990’s those laws had been everywhere rescinded. Nowadays, it is only banned in the US and Europe.
The states of Latin America most familiar with it’s uses consider it no more a dangerous than camomile or earl grey. If more information was made available to the public the numerous benefits of this misunderstood plant would become available as the draconian measures of the 20th century are lifted.
The possibility that the many coca tea benefits discovered could be used for the betterment of society is too tempting to pass up. The taboo must be lifted. An objective view of the coca plant, hitherto impossible, will finally be realized in the 21st century.