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Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency?

Probably it would have been a combination of all these things. But whatever the reasons, it took almost another two hundred years for coca and its derivation, cocaine, to become commercially viable as well as notorious drugs outside of Latin America. Here we need not delve too much into this history, which is admirably analyzed in studies by Paul Gootenberg, Joseph Spillane and others. The psychopharmacological revolution of the nineteenth century that made it possible to produce cocaine was of course of central importance in the process of turning a substance consumed by the wretched of the earth into a product that still has a glamorous appeal to many middle- and upper-class Europeans, American and Asians. Toine Pieters in his blog of 10 December 2012 draws attention to the international commercial competition in controlling the production and distribution of coca as a basis for cocaine manufacturing. This even led to the development of a large-scale production of the plant on Dutch-controlled Java in present-day Indonesia.

The pope awards coca-wine

The pope awards coca-wine

But we must also realize that coca in itself became a very popular product in Europe after the 1860s, especially when extracts of the plants were added to Bordeaux wine. Angelo Mariani sold this product with a successful advertising campaign aimed at the middle classes, emphasizing its youthful and healthy effects and endorsing the campaigns with celebrity statements, including some from the Pope. Here a niche was created that would lead to Coca-Cola on the one hand, and in which cocaine would take over from coca on the other. But at the same time coca remained what it always had been: a solace for the poor in countries such as Peru and Bolivia, a drug of the dispossessed.

What then is the present state of coca? While the war on cocaine seems to be in a stalemate, the past years have seen some interesting developments about the politics around coca. I would like to draw attention here to recent developments and will do this by summarizing information that can be found more extensively in resources on the website of the Transnational Institute (TNI). TNI is an institute with a central base in Amsterdam, but with affiliated scholars and lobbyists around the world. Involving itself with the struggle of poor farmers in countries such as Birma-Myanmar, since 1998 the institute has tried to support farmers caught up in the illicit economies of opium production in the Golden Triangle, and of coca in Latin America. TNI advocates decriminalization of drug use, harm reduction policies, and exploring ways for farmers to build a more dignified life in conflict-torn countries.


Morales, héroe del movimiento

The Single Convention of the United States of 1961, the treaty that replaced all earlier drug treaties of the League of Nations and the UN and is still the basis of international drug policy, also took coca as its target. According to the treaty, the chewing of coca leaves should be banned and effectively ended by the year 1990. Not surprisingly this target was never achieved. Trying to effectuate the eradication of coca consumption clashed with cultural traditions in countries as Peru and Bolivia, and especially with the rights of indigenous people. By 2009 the Bolivian government suggested an amendment to the treaty. The obligation that the chewing of coca leaves should be abolished should, according to the government of President Juan Evo Morales Ayma, be deleted from the convention. Morales had been elected in 2005 (he was re-elected in 2009) and he is not only the leader of the socialist party, a critic of the USA and of transnational companies, and a friend of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. He is also a leader of the Cocalero trade union of coca producing farmers in Bolivia. In the new Bolivian constitution of 2009 the coca leaf is recognized as part of the patrimony of Bolivia. In the same year 2009 Morales was named ‘World Hero of Mother Earth’ by the General Assembly of the UN.

But his amendment to the Single Convention was less successful. Stringently opposed by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) the amendment was rejected and in 2011 Bolivia decided to leave the Single Convention, and ask for re-accession but with a reservation regarding coca chewing. To stop this re-accession the INCB had to convince 62 countries to vote against it by 10 January 2012. The INCB however, has failed in this object. In the whole of Latin America only Mexico took the position against Bolivia. This month it became clear that Bolivia has won a (small) victory against the War on Drugs.

What this will mean to the War on Drugs is hard to fathom. While in European countries there is a tendency to take a harder position in the War on Drugs, in Latin America and even some states of the USA the tendency is the opposite. Perhaps we as historians should make more constructive contributions to the analysis of the present-day situation, and maybe this blog is a place to start. One thing is clear however: whatever the vicissitudes of coca since the Conquest, it still is a needed and useful drug of the dispossessed.



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