Saturday, January 02, 2010

Of coca, cola, and "collas"


Aymara women with a pile of dried coca leaves. If these women are farmers, odds are that they chew them while they work, to stave off hunger, thirst and altitude sickness.

Who knew coca was so versatile? The indigenous, or "collas", that's who. And now they're going to give Coke a run for its money--with, among other things, a new soda-pop:

In an obvious play on words, the Bolivian cocaleros have declared war on the the most popular fizzy drink in the world. Yesterday the vice-minister for coca, Jerónimo Meneses, presented Coca-Colla, a new carbonated energy drink made from the "sacred leaf" of the Andes cultivated in the Chapare region.

There, where Evo Morales launched his career as a union leader and later politician more than two decades ago, you will find the majority of the coca declared illegal under Law 1008, in place since the 1980s.

The initiative was proposed by the campesinos. In case there isn't enough in common with the syrup created in 1885 by John Pemberton, the Coca-Colla bottle will have a red label and contain a dark, almost black liquid.

Even though the Coca-Cola Company says it removed coca from the formula in 1929, the Internet is rife with denuciations that "Coca-Cola is still buying coca in Peru."

Even though minister Meneses has already shown the bottle to the press, the authorities admit that the name of the product could be changed.

"It started as a private initiative to produce a coca-based energy drink, but as a state we are interested in the industrialization of the coca," said vice-minister of rural development Víctor Hugo Vázquez. He emphasized various private initiatives already existing in Bolivia, producing teas, syrups, toothpastes, liquors, candies and even cakes made from coca. In fact, one Italian restaurant in La Paz serves coca spaghetti, made from a mixture of wheat flour and "millennial" coca-leaf flour.

The quantity of coca used legally is part of the controversy, which may be resolved by the results of the Integral Study of the Coca Leaf and the national inquiry into the legal use and consumption of the herb, launched in 2009 with the support of the European Union. Not all the cocaleros support an increased level of cultivation; the "legals" do not want the price to drop with increased availability of the herb.

With the newly-elected Congress in favor, the government proposes to increase legal coca-growing to 20,000 hectares, in order to include the campesinos of the Chapare, social base of Evo Morales, in legal cultivation.

Before the Spanish conquest, the coca was part of Andean rituals. After colonization, it became part of the mining economy; chewing permitted workers to stay on their feet in the dangerous shafts, hundreds of metres below ground, and not even the protestations of the Catholic church against the "devil's leaf" were successful in gaining prohibition of it.

Translation mine.

My compañeros have already beaten me to the story, but I thought I'd translate this piece to show a bit more context. And also to add some facts you might not have known about coca.

For one thing, it's true that there is still coca in Coca-Cola. The leaf is still used to provide an extract for flavoring the drink. There is no cocaine, however, since anti-drug legislation prohibited it. But there used to be--in varying amounts, according to The soda was prepared as a fountain beverage in the early days, meaning that variable quantities of flavoring syrup went into a glass of seltzer water. You might have gotten a very slight cocaine kick from your glass of Coke, or nearly none, at that rate. It would have been indistinguishable in any case from the caffeine buzz you get from the kola nut, which is also still an ingredient to this day. It is very unlikely that anyone would have become a drug addict that way, unless they guzzled the syrup undiluted. And even then, chances are that they'd have gotten a sugary stomach-ache rather than much of a buzz.

Addicts typically injected their cocaine when Coca-Cola was new on the market; later, they rubbed it on their gums or snorted it; later still, with the advent of the CIA's coke importation and crack sales, they began smoking a particularly cheap, nasty form of it as well. There are no recorded cases of addicts ever becoming hooked through simple consumption of a Coke, however; the concentration of the drug would have been much too low.

Cocaine abuse has also taken place in classic crime literature. Back in his day, using cocaine recreationally was not yet illegal, and known cases of cocaine dependence were few, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently foresaw the dangers of addiction (probably as a result of reading Sigmund Freud, if not from using it himself, as Freud also did). There is even a passage in which Dr. Watson warns his friend against the dangers of using drugs to "improve" his mental acuity.

And yes, cocaine is legal for medical use to this day. There are international conventions in place to prevent cocaine produced for medical usage from being diverted onto the streets. Obviously, thanks to stringent quality controls, it's not produced with as much pollution or toxic crap as the illegal kind, which really befouls the jungles where it's made. It is a good topical anesthetic, and as it is a vasoconstrictor, it also impedes excess bleeding. If you've ever had stitches and the nurse swabbed you with a clear liquid to numb the skin before the doctor took needle and thread to you, you may have been dosed with a small amount of cocaine. It would not be enough to give a buzz or "hook" you, but it's definitely enough to make the procedure quite painless. Cocaine solution is also used to soak cotton pads and swabs for nose, mouth and throat surgeries, again to prevent excess bleeding (which can cause choking) and to ease pain.

Novocaine, a chemical relative, is still widely used by dentists for "freezing". And cocaine's other chemical cousins are found in over-the-counter topical creams and sprays, usually to calm itchy bug bites and nasty rashes. If the active ingredient ends in -caine, you've been exposed to one of coke's relatives. The difference, though, is that benzocaine and lidocaine sold in those strengths are not "buzzy". They are felt merely as "soothing". So don't bother trying to get high inhaling the contents of an aerosol can of benzocaine spray, 'kay?

Coca in its natural state is not enough to give a mosquito a buzz, either. There is so little alkaloid in fresh or dried unprocessed coca that tonnes of it are needed to make just a kilo of cocaine. And believe me, you don't want to know just how much, and how many, polluting nasty chemicals go into the making of that stuff. (How about a snootful of chlorine, acid and kerosene--sounds appealing, eh?)

The sacred leaf is, however, an effective suppressant of hunger, thirst and exhaustion. And whether chewed plain, or with a small pinch of powdered lime made from burnt, crushed seashells, or brewed as tea, it's the only remedy that really works for high-altitude sickness. You can see why the indigenous peoples of the Andes, from Colombia right down to Chile, have used it for as far back as any of their histories go. It makes farming at higher altitudes possible--something it would not have been if not for coca. Use of lime makes coca work better, which may be one reason why the indigenous peoples of Bolivia remain hopeful that one day, their country will again have access to the sea--a ready source of that helpful coca-boosting mineral.

But again, this is not about being stoned all the time. At altitude, coca leaf enables people to live and work normally. Without it, they'd all have whanging headaches and be in a constant state of exhaustion. Is that much human suffering really worth the approval of the ignorant moralists of the northern global elite?

Medical studies have found coca-chewing to be harmless and even nutritionally beneficial, as coca is a good source of many vitamins and minerals--a boon, in other words, to impoverished natives, who are at risk of malnutrition if deprived of access to it. Some studies even suggest, ironically, that coca tea can help wean addicts off not only cocaine, but many other drugs!

I would really like to see more medical studies done to determine if coca also elevates oxygenation of the blood at altitude; I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it did, as this study suggests. What I do know is that it makes symptoms of altitude sickness go away. And seeing as even Pope John Paul II was not averse to drinking several cups of coca tea for that purpose on his trips to Bolivia, the question of whether this medicinal use is moral should now be considered settled, once and for all, in favor of coca.

I have yet to find a picture of the bottle for Coca-Colla (the Bolivian drink) on the ABI site, and I suspect it will undergo a name/packaging change before it hits store shelves, so as to avoid lawsuits from the Coca-Cola Co. I suspect that the main risk associated with it will be the same that troubles Coca-Cola, however--too much sugar and caffeine.

But I wouldn't worry about cocaine in the bottles--and in fact, I'd be relieved that this industrial use, like the coca-flour pastries and spaghetti, puts the leaf to safe and healthy use, preventing its being processed by the tonne into that nasty white gringo nose-powder or those ghetto-wrecking crack rocks that we all know only too well.

Or, as the "collas" like to say, Coca no es cocaina.