Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Misunderstood Coca Leaf

We are off to visit Peru for ten days and my thoughts return to the letter I wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early 2011 about the coca leaf.

My views on the coca leaf are somewhat vehement and biased due to my early association with the natives of Bolivia and Peru. Those of us who have traveled to the region are prepared for the availability of the coca leaf – a natural leaf grown extensively in western South America and often imported to the U.S. in order to manufacture cocaine.

But coca is not cocaine. The leaf contains fourteen alkaloids, one of which is cocaine and this single alkaloid represents about 1% of the entire leaf. You need a whole bunch of leaves to extract enough cocaine in order to manufacture the illicit drug, but only by adding other ingredients.

The coca leaf has been a staple of the indigenous culture throughout Peru and Bolivia for centuries – the Quechua and Aymara people , especially those who live in high altitudes chew a kind of quid, called the “acullico” to aid in digestion and combat the high altitude and fatigue; they used it for many other additional ailments too lengthy to list here. When consumed like this or in a hot tea called maté de coca, it is only a mild and harmless stimulant, less harmful some say, than caffeine or nicotine.

In 1961 the coca leaf was placed on the UN’s illicit drug list along with Opium and Heroin. It has never been removed in all these years, even though the World Health Organization and other agencies did the research and clearly found that the coca leaf is not only not a narcotic, but has health benefits that most of us are not privy to.

“In the 1990s, the World Health Organisation presented a report stating the coca leaf did not present any foreseeable health problems. In 2006, it released a further report, which identified the ability of the coca leaf to suppress appetite and increase endurance, as well as recognising the leaf’s historic use “for the relief of gastrointestinal problems and respiratory ailments and treatment of altitude sickness”. According to a 1975 Harvard study, the leaf is rich in phosphorous, calcium, riboflavin, vitamins, and iron.” The Sydney Globist 2012

As a child living in Bolivia, I was surrounded by native people who chewed the leaf. My parents drank the tea and when visiting diplomats arrived, they were served maté de coca to counter the effects of “soroche,” the high altitude sickness for which many visitors are unprepared.

This is not intended as a political statement, just a reminder that through an abundance of misinformation and deliberate lies, facts can be overlooked or thrown to the wind. The real truth is that the coca leaf is beneficial to all of us if used with moderation and intelligence. Grapes are not wine and barley is not whiskey. The poppy seed is not opium and coca is not cocaine.

Perhaps it is time for the "eagle to join with the condor;" perhaps it is time to learn from each other and respect one another’s rights to live our lives with respect, maintaining our dignity and traditions. If we learn to respect ancient tradition, perhaps then we can heal the rifts between the U. S. and left-leaning countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela. We cannot expect the entire world to follow our principles in governing and tradition, but that should not mean we can't get along; why can't we respect that?

See "When the Eagle Flies with the Condor," @