Coca: One More Thing US Drugs Policy Gets Wrong

Coca Bolivia War on Drugs

Children making a coca offering.

You can find it in any market or supermarket. Under the brand name Windsor, it comes in boxes that look much like any box of Lipton tea in the US. I drank it in the morning instead of coffee. In the evening, I preferred trimate, the coca leaves mixed with chamomile and anise.

In Bolivia, as in much of the Andes, people understand that coca leaves are not the same as cocaine. The leaves, which are rich in vitamins and minerals, are used for tea, in candies, in flour for baking cakes, as an anaesthetic, and in beverages–as they still are in Coca-Cola, following a process that removes any detectable trace of drug so that only the sugar and nutrition-free caffeine remain as stimulants.

Coca Bolivia War on Drugs

Coca leaves

Bolivia’s socialist president, Evo Morales, who took office in 2006, was a coca grower and led the growers’ union. He’s also Aymara, in a country where the indigenous majority has been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries.

His election–like that of Barack Obama here–led to an often racially-based backlash revealing profound social rifts. To many people in the caste that used to run Bolivia, it’s disconcerting to see, just for one example, an indigenous woman take her place as a Cabinet minister wearing traditional garb. Morales has also lost some support among his one-time backers for promoting a new highway through the Tipnis National Park, home to three indigenous groups. But the opposition, encouraged no doubt by the US war on drugs, often uses the coca connection to demonize him. These critics don’t label the president as a socialist, or an Indian. They say, darkly, he’s a cocalero.

Coca Bolivia War on Drugs

Student in writing workshop.

Bolivia’s Constitution guarantees equal rights regardless of race, language, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. There’s been backlash here too. While I was in Cochabamba offering my arts-based literacy and social justice workshops, the city lived through a Little Rock moment. Girls enrolled for the first time in the city’s most prestigious, previously all-male, public school and boys and their parents battled with police as they tried (in the end, unsuccessfully) to stop the girls from entering the building.

But coca, coca, I was talking about coca.

In the anti-Evo stronghold of Santa Cruz, coffee does seem to be the drink of choice. In the capital, La Paz, a taxi driver told me that because of Morales, the Mexican drug cartels are now slaughtering people in Bolivia–something I could not verify and does not appear to be true. What is true is that acreage under coca cultivation has expanded and the media warns of disastrous consequences to Bolivian society if the nation were to become a cocaine producer–something that has not happened yet.

Another truth: coca is a hardy plant and can yield four harvests a year. If non-narcotic coca products could be exported to the US, imagine what a boost it would give the small farmers and the legal economies of Andean South America.

Coca Bolivia War on DrugsBanning coca. It’s as though a dry county in Texas banned potatoes because you can process them to get vodka. But when I said this to a Bolivian friend, she took offense: “Coca is not a potato. It’s medicine. And it’s sacred.”

I started drinking coca tea to prevent and alleviate high altitude sickness–el soroche–something that coca does more effectively and without the inconvenient and at times life-threatening side effects of drugs like Diamox, prescribed in the US. Coca soothes the stomach and aids digestion. Not only did I stay healthy but I found I didn’t need coffee to start my day. I love coffee. But I’m an addict. At home in California, my head is foggy and pounding until I get my espresso fix in the morning.

Bolivians are not ignorant of the dangers of addiction or careless about health. While we in the US use tiny print on cigarette warning labels, in Bolivia the message comes through loud and clear, taking up half the space on the pack:

Cada seis minutos muere un fumador. (Every six minutes a smoker dies.)

diane leferOn the cartons in duty-free airport shops, purchasers are warned in large capital letters in English that smoking can cause impotence.

And yes, coca leaves are sacred, as I learned when we offered them up in a ritual to la Pachamama, the divinity of Mother Earth.

Back home, my first cup of coffee in weeks upset my stomach, set my heart to pounding and my hands to shaking. I would still be drinking coca tea, if only I could.

Diane Lefer

Published by the LA Progressive on March 4, 2012
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About Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile and torture survivor Hector Aristizábal; the crime novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as "sifting the ashes of America's endless class warfare" and, most recently, her historical novel The Fiery Alphabet, which tells a woman's adventurous life-story against the backdrop of the 18th-century tension between Enlightenment values and religious faith.
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