The Corpus Callosum

The New York Times has an editorial written by Evo Morales Ayma, the
President of Bolivia.  It has nothing to do with globalization, or
the ravages of capitalism, or the environmental destruction wrought by
multinational corporations, which is what one might expect. 
Rather, it is about coca leaves.  He makes an excellent point.

Me Chew My Coca Leaves

Published: March 13, 2009

THIS week in Vienna, a meeting of the United Nations
Commission on Narcotic Drugs took place that will help shape
international antidrug efforts for the next 10 years. I attended the
meeting to reaffirm Bolivia’s commitment to this struggle but also to
call for the reversal of a mistake made 48 years ago.

In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed
the coca leaf in the same category with cocaine — thus promoting the
false notion that the coca leaf is a narcotic — and ordered that “coca
leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years from the coming into
force of this convention.” Bolivia signed the convention in 1976,
during the brutal dictatorship of Col. Hugo Banzer, and the 25-year
deadline expired in 2001.

So for the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the
traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the
convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an
unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean

I am not an expert about this, but I did write a term paper about the
subject in Jeffrey
class on Andean Archeology.  That would have been in
1979 or so.  I remember it because he wrote on the top “A very
scholarly work.”  You remember things like that. 

I later had a cat named Jeffrey.  He was all black, except for a
white heart-shaped spot on his chest.

Anyway, when I was researching for the paper, I encountered an article
about the reasons for the UN banning the substance.  There was an
entire issue — a “special” issue — devoted to the problem of
cocaine.  One article stood out.  It had a photo of of a
“Peruvian coca leaf user.” It was a black and white photo, styled like
a mug shot, of a guy with a craggy brown face, barrel chest, and
longish, somewhat disheveled hair. 

He looked like a guy who lived on the side of a mountain and grew coca
leaves.  Or maize, or quinoa, or potatoes, or anything else. 

Few journal articles from that era had a photo to go along with
them.  Authors had to pay to have illustrations included in
articles.  They did not do that unless the illustration served a
specific purpose.  And no anthropologist would publish an
unflattering mug shot like that.  They might illustrate, say, how
the farmers tilled their fields, or show a ritual involving coca
leaves, or something informative like that.  I had to think that
the intent was to give a negative impression of the effects of coca
leaf chewing, even though the guy’s appearance had nothing whatsoever
to do with the crop he happened to grow.

The articles in that issue had nothing good to say about coca.  It
was all bad.  Some of it was wrong.  For example, one of the
articles said that the leaves had no nutritional value.  That was
incorrect.  In fact, coca leaves have vitamin C, a nutrient that
could be in short supply in that part of the world, in winter.  As
I recall (don’t quote me on this) the vitamin is not available when the
leaves are in their raw form.  But when coca leaves are chewed in
the traditional manner, they are mixed with mineral lime (primarily
calcium carbonate).  The alkali releases the components of the
leaves, increasing their bioavailability.

Another reason I remember this well, is that I learned something about
science.  Sometimes, reputable journals will let themselves be
co-opted for political purposes.  That particular issue had been
sponsored by the United Nations.   Meaning, in this case, the
US government.  It served no legitimate scientific purpose. 
Rather, it existed to give pseudoscientific cover to a pseudomoralistic
campaign, which was — and is — really all about money and

That sort of thing still happens today.


  1. #1 Erin
    March 23, 2009

    /naive question

    Wouldn’t it be harder to control the growth of coca plants for cocaine if growing them for the leaves was legal?

    (Not that I’m particularly worried about the growth of coca plants for cocaine…but logistically)

  2. #2 Lassi Hippeläinen
    March 23, 2009

    Another traditional narcotic plant is kava (Piper methysticum). It is commonly used in South Sea islands, but shunned in industrialised countries, even though it has compounds that have proven medical value.

    Maybe there is a prejudice against narcotics that aren’t known in European culture? My finger points towards missionaries. For example, when they banned kava in Tahiti, it was replaced with alcohol. In a twist of irony, King Pomare II (the first Tahitian to convert to Christianity) boozed himself to death.

  3. #3 andie
    April 11, 2009

    cocaine is not a normal byproduct of the coca plant. it must be synthesized using other products like kerosene to make a potent substance that we would call cocaine. chewing coca leaves has never been addictive or abused by the Andean people in thousands of years.

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