Monday, April 4, 2011

When a body chews coca leaves . . .

This is NOT a pro-substance abuse blog. Substance abuse is REALLY bad idea.

In 2009, Bolivia requested that the UN remove the provisions regarding coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. If no other government objected by the end of January 2011, the ban on coca leaf would have been rescinded. However, at the 11th hour, the US, UK, and Sweden entered there objection. See Bolivia's response here.

Here's the back story: Cocaine can be extracted from coca leaves, but chewing coca leaves has long been a traditional practice of Andean communities. It apparently acts like a mild stimulant. I have been unable to find any actual explanation of harm to the body that chewing coca leaves causes. Even the 1950 UN report on the dangers of coca leaf says:

The leaves of the coca plant contain cocaine. In the present state of knowledge the indications are that the effects produced by chewing coca leaf are to be explained by the action of cocaine.

It does not at present appear that the chewing of the coca leaf can be regarded as a drug addiction in the medical sense.


Briefly the harmful effects of chewing coca leaf, from the point of view of the individual and of the nation, are the following:

It inhibits the sensation of hunger and thus maintains, by a vicious circle, a constant state of malnutrition;

It induces in the individual undesirable changes of an intellectual and moral character. This is especially clear in exceptional cases, and it is much discussed how far this is general. It certainly hinders the chewer's chances of obtaining a higher social standard;

It reduces the economic yield of productive work, and therefore maintains a low economic standard of life.


Coca leaves contain, as do other green leaves, vegetables and fruits, most of the known vitamins, especially B 1, B 2 and C in significant quantities. In spite of this fact it would by no means be advisable to supply these vitamins in the form of coca leaf chewing i.e., together with the toxic substance cocaine. In no way can the chewing of coca leaves therefore be regarded as a substitute for an adequate diet.

Frankly, the "harmful effects" sound an awful lot like "Demon Rum." I wish I could have found a reliable, evidence-based source of more recent origin that would actually say whether chewing coca leaves is harmful. The Bolivian government thinks there's nothing wrong with chewing coca, but I don't see the evidence either way.

Khat is perhaps an analog (completely different drug, though). Nasir Warfa and co-authors suggest that studies "suggested a weak association between khat usage and mental illness, with no evidence of causality." What they do see, however, is something of a "moral panic" that skews the discussion of whether there is harm.* I suspect the same thing is happening with coca leaves.

Because cocaine and crack cocaine are so harmful, anything associated with them must be harmful as well, or so the thinking goes. The body is seen as weak flesh, subject to the ravages of poisons. Coca leaf then becomes even more insidious because of its apparent innocuousness.

Now I am definitely opposed to harmful drugs and I am opposed to breaking the law. I have never used marijuana in any form (this is actually true), and I don't intend to chew coca leaves unless (a) they become legal and (b) scientific evidence shows they are not harmful and (c) scientific evidence also shows there is some benefit to them. I doubt this would happen soon, and I do reasonably well with coffee and other forms of caffeine as my stimulant of choice.

Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder about the insistence that coca leaves be placed on the same "schedule" as cocaine, oxycodone, and opium.

I'm thinking about this because of tomorrow's lecture on illicit flows of "bad" goods: illegal drugs, in this case. One of the assigned readings was a chapter by Silvia Rivera Cusincanqui on coca use in Northern Argentina, just over the border from Bolivia.** She makes a strong case that people do not see coca leaf chewing as bad or illicit -- even when it is illegal.

Nevertheless, the US, the UK, and Sweden still insist on framing coca leaves as as significant a threat to the body as other controlled substances that may have much more harmful effects. Moreover, many uncontrolled substances (or minimally controlled substances -- alcohol where there's a minimum drinking age) may have worse effects on the body than coca leaves.

Well, I skipped my wine with dinner tonight. I'm up too late and will certainly need my coffee tomorrow. And then I'll probably find a way to ingest my favorite psychotropic food: chocolate. A day without chocolate is like . . .a day without chocolate and that is not a good thing.

*Nasir Warfa, Axel Klein, Kamaldeep Bhui, Gerard Leavey, Tom Craig, Stephen Alfred Stansfeld, Khat use and mental illness: A critical review, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 65, Issue 2, July 2007, Pages 309-318, ISSN 0277-9536, DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.04.038.

**Silvia Rivera Cusincanqui, "Here even the legislators chew them": Coca Leaves and Identity Politics in Northern Argentina, in Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders, and the Other Side of Globalization, ed. by Wilem van Schendel and Itty Abraham (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).


  1. PS: everyone, if you know of scientific paper with evidence regarding the health benefits/harms of coca leaf chewing, please provide citations. Thanks!

  2. Interesting information! I personally didn't know you could extract cocaine from a coco leaf.

  3. Scientific paper with evidence? What about the words from the mouths of the people who use coca plant? Are they not to be considered the truth?
    Are there more truth to be found in a paper written by somebody who probably never had any experience with coca?

  4. Evidence from biomedical investigations that follow standards of the scientific field of medicine is one very important way to evaluate contending claims (harmful, not harmful). Communal knowledge is another way to do so. The one does not preclude the other. Moreover the kinds of errors one sees from these two disparate epistemologies are very different. I know what the communities say about coca leaves. I don't know whether scientific investigations have been done.

  5. What an interesting post. I had no idea that coca leaves were so dangerous.