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Can Colombia’s legislative proposal to legalize coca protect its living Indigenous legacy while helping to build a society inspired by coca cultures and their focus on community?

On August 25, 2020, a proposal presented in Colombia’s Congress to regulate coca and its derivatives, including cocaine, made history. It was the first time, since the early twentieth century prohibition of cocaine, that any legislature anywhere on Earth dared to raise the issue of regulating this drug. It was also the first time that Colombia seriously considered legalizing the coca leaf; taking it out of its current legal gray zone and adopting parts of Peru and Bolivia’s more effective regulatory models. In Peru alone there are about six million people who use legal coca products (about 10% of the total production of coca leaf), according to a recent official report by Peru’s National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (Devida).

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There are many reasons to celebrate Colombia’s bold proposal to regulate both coca and cocaine. The country has lacked the political will to break out of the endless cycle of “drug wars,” even though its hardline approach has failed at stopping drug trafficking while promoting violence against its most vulnerable people. However, since the words coca and cocaine have nearly become synonymous, it’s important to remember that these are two very different things. Cocaine is a relative newcomer, obtained via chemical extraction techniques only pioneered by Europeans just 175 years ago. Coca, on the other hand, is a sacred plant with an eight-thousand-year history in the Tropical Americas. It is a plant that encompasses multiple universes, each one central to the diverse cultures that the plant belongs to.

Coca vs. Cocaine

Coca is the means by which communities channel energy for both individual and collective work, while offering relief for physical and metaphysical ailments.

For traditional cultures, coca is not something trivial or a simple source of income. It is a sacred plant that constitutes the heart of culture itself. Coca, in concert with other teacher plants, embodies an Indigenous social system that considers balance the key to a good life. Under this world view, a good life means finding an equilibrium between individual and collective needs, the human and natural worlds, and the influences of both visible and intangible forces. The rituals and routines of tending coca (and other) plants, chewing coca leaf, and sharing the harvest with others assures that communities remain healthy and whole. Coca is the means by which communities channel energy for both individual and collective work, while offering relief for physical and metaphysical ailments.

Mambe in Spanish, or jíbie inMuruy-Muyna, is the green powder made by toasting, grinding, and sifting coca leaves, then mixing them with dried yarumo leaf ashes, which sweeten coca’s flavor and strengthen its effects.

According to Aimema Urue, artist and coca advocate from the Garza Clan of the Muruy-Muyna (Witoto) people (in the Northwest Amazon), coca represents the divine feminine. For him, coca is the source of life for Andean-Amazonian societies. It is a symbol of dialogue, spiritual connection, physical strength, and clarity of thought. Coca—called jibína in the Muruy-Muyna language—is the very origin of good thinking. Mambe in Spanish, or jíbie inMuruy-Muyna, is the green powder made by toasting, grinding, and sifting coca leaves, then mixing them with dried yarumo leaf ashes, which sweeten coca’s flavor and strengthen its effects. Mambe contains coca’s good spirit: the benevolent energy of the first woman, who brought wisdom and direction to Aimema’s people.

Equating coca with cocaine is not just a chemical reductionism, but also a falsehood. Cocaine purchased on the street, via WhatsApp, the Dark Web, or the pharmaceutical industry, doesn’t even have cocaine, per se. Rather, this so-called cocaine is a derivative of the natural cocaine found in the coca leaf that is transformed via hydrochloric acid and other substances in labs and then mixed with multiple cutting agents. The chemical process changes coca’s naturally occurring alkaloids into a potent stimulant salt (cocaine hydrochloride), which is rapidly absorbed by the body, causing a nearly immediate, intense, but ephemeral euphoria. This pharmacological profile is associated with addiction and drug use disorders, affecting 17% of people who use cocaine salts (a similar rate to the 15% seen among alcohol drinkers (Anthony, 2002).

The chemical characterizations done to date concur that coca features a high density of nutrients, particularly calcium, vitamin A, iron, phosphorus, and vegetable protein.

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Coca’s naturally occurring cocaine content averages 0.6% of the leaf’s dried weight. The plant contains other tropane metabolites (a phyto-chemical family found particularly among solanaceous and Erythroxylaceae plants) that, during coca chewing, are hydrolyzed and transformed into other poorly studied alkaloids, most of which are lost in industrial cocaine production. In its original state, cocaine is neither isolated nor transformed into a salt. Rather, it is surrounded by a rich phytochemistry. The chemical characterizations done to date concur that coca features a high density of nutrients, particularly calcium, vitamin A, iron, phosphorus, and vegetable protein. There is evidence that other less studied nutrient families, such as flavonoids and tannins, and various other alkaloids, are also present in coca. This combination of diverse alkaloid contents and nutrients could perhaps provide something like an “entourage effect” (the synergy between chemical compounds as they interact with the body) that may account for the many therapeutic, nutritional, and agricultural applications ascribed to the plant. This may also explain the absence of energy peaks and troughs in traditional coca use.

Coca leaf, especially when chewed, provides a feeling of well-being, alertness, physical energy, and mental stamina. While the physiological effects last as long as the leaf is being chewed and dissipate soon after stopping, the intangible benefits are only meant to be understood over time. Coca’s stimulant properties are a subtle but noticeable sensation, particularly apparent at high altitude or during prolonged exercise. This energy boost happens alongside a transient loss of appetite and other feelings of “need”—such as hunger, thirst, or cold—while improving the  mood. This has triggered interest in researching coca’s potential for treating anxiety and depression, among other mental health conditions.

The cocaine naturally present in the coca leaf has not been linked to dependency or withdrawal symptoms. Consuming it may, at most, create a habit like drinking tea or coffee, with perhaps a more effective stimulant effect. There is no evidence of significant harm, in either the medical or anthropological literature, associated with using coca as mambe or hayo (that is, as whole or pulverized leaves placed inside the cheek), or as an infusion or food ingredient.

Since the 1975 studies of Timothy Plowman (1979, 1981, 1984, 1986) and Andrew Weil (1981, 1995), the scientific literature has pointed to the fact that coca is helpful for diets lacking dairy. This a key benefit at a time when reducing dairy consumption for both health and environmental reasons is being debated around the world. Chewing 60 grams of coca a day appears to satisfy an adult’s daily calcium needs, an outcome no other plant comes close to achieving. In the meantime, coca provides phyto-chemicals that appear to aid carbohydrate digestion (particularly at high elevation). This may explain coca’s ability to stabilize blood glucose and temporally suppress the appetite, thereby facilitating long walks as well as long town hall sessions that Indigenous and campesino communities regularly take part in while fasting. This has created interest in using coca as a food supplement that suppresses hunger while assisting weight control, an application of utmost importance given that 39% of the world’s population is overweight and 13% is obese (according to the World Health Organization).

However, it’s imprecise to think about coca as one thing only. There are 4 domesticated varieties that have been identified by Western botanists (E. coca, E. coca var. Ipadu, E. novogranatense and E. novogranatense var. truxillense), alongside 250 species found in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia. About 30 of these species contain cocaine. Many are wild varieties that can only be identified by local communities. Their differences with botanically identified varieties are often invisible to Western eyes. The famous botanist Richard Schultes, via Wade Davis’s One River, stated that Indigenous classification systems surpass Western science in terms of sophistication, and often reveal botanical enigmas. Indigenous knowledge and perspective reflect “a new vision of life itself, a profoundly different way of living in a forest” (Davis, 1996, p. 219). Understanding such a plant involves combining different cosmological and metaphysical points of view, belonging to a certain shamanic legacy or family lineage, learning various ways of harnessing the plant’s medicinal effects, and mastering the comprehension of other unspoken characteristics. This is only possible after long apprenticeships in which knowledge and practice are passed on from one generation to the next. The complexity of traditional knowledge systems underlines the importance of recognizing and respecting Indigenous wisdom not only as a form of knowing, but also as a fertile ground for creating “new” (old) paradigms of non-commercial relations with plants.

The Underlying Questions of the Legislative Proposal

Will regulating coca and its derivatives exclude both the campesino (small farmer) and Indigenous coca communities, handing over their culture and most reliable livelihood to large, pharma-style corporations? Or will Colombia honor the Indigenous movement’s longstanding efforts to vindicate coca by acknowledging their collective property rights over their sacred plant? How will the interests of Afro-Colombian and other rural communities be respected? Coca is perhaps not sacred for them, but it remains a part of their cultural patrimony, and constitutes an essential merchandise as well as, perhaps, a future legal economic opportunity. These questions are also being posed in the worlds of psychedelics and cannabis, where pathways towards regulation have resulted in patent- and license-based business models that exclude Indigenous and small farmer communities. In the meantime, there is concern that regulatory approaches allow Western business to appropriate and profit off hard-won traditions, whose preservation remains jeopardized. However, it is rare for newcomers to appropriately acknowledge, let alone contribute to, Indigenous patrimony, in terms that honor Indigenous autonomy.

The demands of multi-billion-dollar consumer industries to meet certain quality standards, produce clinical research studies, and install infrastructure make it almost impossible for traditional cultivators to participate in modern food and pharmaceutical supply chains.

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The regulation of medical cannabis, as well as other sacred organisms like tobacco or psychedelic mushrooms—both in Colombia and the rest of the world—shows that regulating a prohibited plant or substance can risk repeating exclusionary economic models that are often at the source of all “drug problems.” The demands of multi-billion-dollar consumer industries to meet certain quality standards, produce clinical research studies, and install infrastructure make it almost impossible for traditional cultivators to participate in modern food and pharmaceutical supply chains. These industry models, which are also found in agro-industry, are extractive and inequitable, and are of concern well beyond the domain of recently regulated sacred plants.

In the case of coca, the risk of repeating this situation deserves just as much, or even more, care. In Colombia, coca provides a livelihood for 125 to 170 thousand coca-growing families—among the poorest in the country (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2019).

Dora Troyano, instructor at the National Training Service’s Agricultural Center in Cauca and member of Land of Peace Foundation (Fundación Tierra de Paz, n.d.), has worked alongside the Lerma community (in Southwestern Colombia) to conduct research on coca’s agricultural and gastronomic applications. She asks: “Who are Colombia’s coca farmers? A legislative proposal must first recognize and understand coca’s many realities, and the varied relationships communities can have with the plant, including its role in the drug supply chain.” She notes that this characterization remains to be done, but is a crucial part of any effective legislative process, which would no doubt result in more decentralized proposals aligned with the diverse Indigenous and campesino voices that coexist in Colombia.

To begin with, a simple distinction could be drawn between coca farmers who grow the plant under the commercial dynamics of the drug trade; those who are producers and elders adhering to a millenary understanding of coca; and small farmers who cultivate the plant alongside food crops as a means of making a living. For many of them, coca farming has become a Faustian pact. It has exposed them to armed groups that feed off illicit revenues, mostly linked to the selling of cocaine, but coca cultivation has also represented one of the few viable livelihoods available. Creating a legal industry could help pacify their homelands, but, if a conventional pharma model is applied, this could also rob small farmers of their most reliable income source and push them further into poverty.

In “talking circles” using coca leaf, communities work together to build “a sweet word”: a shared narrative that strengthens the bonds of trust between members of the community, defined as a collective that includes human beings, the observable ecosystem, and the invisible forces that govern life.

Illustration by Marialba Quesada.

Coca and New Economic Models

Regulating coca and its derivatives has a much greater significance than preserving the precarious incomes of marginalized populations. Indeed, the benefits found in coca go further than a reductionist view centered solely on coca’s alkaloids and phyto-chemical contents. Coca is an essential component of a value system that many traditional communities call “good living” or buen vivir. In “talking circles” using coca leaf, communities work together to build “a sweet word”: a shared narrative that strengthens the bonds of trust between members of the community, defined as a collective that includes human beings, the observable ecosystem, and the invisible forces that govern life. If complex language and storytelling are distinctive features of being human, coca and mambeo (coca chewing) provide tools to improve community politics via enhanced attention and communication, as well as a more profound understanding of social and ecosystem relationships. At a time when the search for sustainable development, circular economies, and regenerative processes becomes ever more urgent, the communication and political practices of coca cultures offer tools for constructing the types of economies and relationships we need. 

It is important to recognize the present and potential economic value of coca, but it is also essential not to overlook its cultural, medical, nutritional, and agricultural value; most notably, for Indigenous peoples. This recognition must be the guiding principle in regulatory negotiations, not just because it is right to prioritize these communities and Drug War survivors, but also because their view and understanding of the world provides new paradigms that can constructively challenge the West’s tired models of extractive capitalism. Wade Davis said that “the great lesson of anthropology is that all cultures have something to say and must be listened to. The great curse of humanity has been cultural myopia. Humanity’s different voices are there to inspire us in multiple ways” (France24, 2020). In the case of coca, reaching out to cultures who have maintained a beneficial relationship with this plant, and built their understanding of it for 8000 years, provides a source of innovation and an antidote to cultural myopia.  

That’s Aimema’s wish. In his community’s Law of Origin, the plant is not only legal, but sacred and medicinal. In his view, it is only modern, “developed” man that calls coca illegal, as he has lost his freedom in relation to his own medicines. “If white people understood our principles and Law of Origin, if they regulated coca, it would offer them much strength,” he says. “They would have the freedom of being able to speak and bring more people to the teachings of this medicine; including how to use the plant, how to direct it, and what it means to properly manage, cultivate, and care for the plant and chew its leaves.” Aimema hopes that the plant will one day be legal around the world and that more ceremonial houses of coca will be built; places where the use of medicinal plants can be learned, especially the knowledge of coca. “To deal with coca topics, those places are needed. Talking circles. That’s our greatest wish: to make it known to many institutions and governments that there is another reality, a true origin of coca,” he explains. The possibility of regulating coca makes him trust in the word that he inherited from his ancestors: “At some point, humanity will finally understand what coca is, when people sit to listen to its guidance, in a ceremonial house, which is a cosmic house,” he says. This is why he recommends “keeping the past present,” and remembering that “the past isn’t far away, it’s near, it’s alive. And perhaps by keeping the past present we can find balance: think and speak with grace,” and thereby, create a new reality.

Humanity has used stimulants for millennia and their prevalence is only accelerating. To think people will stop taking them is counterfactual and disingenuous. Stimulant use becomes a psychological disorder when social dislocations have torn down individuals’ trust in their communities. Can the bill to regulate coca and its derivatives not only protect coca’s living legacy among Indigenous people, but also promote a healthier kind of society, inspired by coca cultures and their focus on community-building? Can the bill contribute to espousing Indigenous “good living” principles and foster a more intelligent and humble management of our ecosystem? Can we grow out of the West’s thirst for false (and ephemeral) protagonism, and seek out new forms of living together so we may, perhaps, keep telling the human story on this planet?

These are enormous challenges, but such is the magnitude of the challenges posed by coca.

Listen to Aimema (in Spanish) and discover his work here.

Art by Trey Brasher.


Note:
A previous version of this article was originally published by VICE en Español. It belongs to the special: Planta: Latin America down to the roots.

References

Anthony, J. C. (2002). Epidemiology of drug dependence. In Davis, K. L., Charney, D., Joseph T. Coyle, J. T. & and Nemeroff, C. (Eds.), Neuropsychopharmacology: The fifth generation of progress (pp. 1557–1573). Brentwood, TN: American College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Davis, W. (1997). One river. New York City, NY: Simon & Schuster.

France24. (2020, February 2). Wade Davis: “La miopía cultural ha sido una maldición de la humanidad” {Wade Davis: Cultural myopia has been a curse of humanity] [Video podcast]. France24. https://www.france24.com/es/20200219-la-entrevista-wade-davis-cultura-raza-antropologia

Plowman, T. (1979). The identity of Amazonian and Trujillo coca.  Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 27(1–2): 45–68.

Plowman, T. (1981). Amazonian coca. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 3(2–3): 195–225. 

Plowman, T. (1984). The ethnobotany of coca. Advances in Economic Botany 1, 62–111.

Plowman, T. (1986). Coca chewing and the botanical origins of coca (Erythroxylum spp.) in Latin America. In D. Pacini & C. Franquemont (Eds.), Coca and cocaine: Effects on people and policy in Latin America (pp. 5-34). Cultural Survival Report 23. Cambridge, MA: Cultural Survival, Inc. and LASP, Cornell University. 

Plowman, T. and Rivier, L. (1983). Cocaine and cinnamoylcocaine content of Erythroxylum species. Annals of Botany 51(5): 641-659.

Troyano-Sanchez, D. L. (n.d.). Alianza coca para la paz. Fundacion terra de paz. https://fundaciontierradepaz.org/programas/alianza-coca-para-la-paz/

Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito (UNODC). (2019). Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2019 [Monitoring of territories affected by illicit crops 20190. Bogotá: UNODC-SIMCI.

Weil, A. T. (1981). The therapeutic value of coca in contemporary medicine. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 3(2-3): 367-376

Weil, A. T. (1995, May 15). Letter from the Andes: The new politics of coca. The New Yorker, 70–80.


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