Before I read Rusty Young’s awesome book, Marching Powder, I had next to no knowledge about cocaine. Marching Powder is a fascinating insight into life inside Bolivia’s most notorious prison – San Pedro – in La Paz, where prisoners have to purchase their own cells, and illegal cocaine production occurs on a daily basis.
A few years ago, it was relatively easy to bribe a prison guard and get one of the cons to show you around on a guided tour. One prisoner, ‘Fantasma’, had murdered his best friend at short range with a shot gun, so we’re not talking about your average travel agency representative…
Sadly (or thankfully, depending on how you look at it), it’s next to impossible to get inside the walls these days, and some who’ve managed it have been raped or arrested.
And so it was that I decided that perhaps my lesson in cocaine should come from another of La Paz’ infamous tourist attractions – the Museo de Coca.
Some interesting facts
Traces of coca have been found as far back as 2300BC, in the mummified remains of ancient Peruvian civilisations, and since then have been an integral part of daily life for many societies in South America.
The Incas extracted an essential oil from the coca plant and used it as an anaesthetic when they operated on cerebral tumours!
The church in Lima condemned the consumption of coca in 1551 because it was considered to be a barrier to Christianity, but then reversed their stance when they realised it increased the output of indigenous workers.
In the Potosi mines in Bolivia, workers, who were forced to work shifts as long as 48 hours, consumed an annual amount of coca leaves of equal value to 450kg of gold.
The legal cocaine boom began in 1863, when Angelo Mariani developed coca wine in Paris and, by 1884, the famous psychologist and neurologist Sigmund Freud published his first article ‘About coca’. He was a regular user of cocaine before eventually dying from cancer of the oral cavity, presumably caused by his addiction.
1886 saw the launch of Coca Cola, which, to this day, uses coca leaves for flavouring.
In 1884, cocaine was first used as an anaesthetic. Before this, doctors would use prehistoric techniques to render a patient unconscious, including hitting them over the head or making them pass out from drinking alcohol.
By 1905, the use of cocaine as an anaesthetic had been banned and replaced with the synthetic derivative procaine. Later, The Harrison’s Law (1914) prohibited the legal use of cocaine for any purpose in the USA.
The United Nations resolved to eradicate cocaine in 1950, due to evidence that it leads to mental retardation and contributed significantly to poverty in South America. The chewing of coca was also banned by the Bolivian government. Regardless, by 1973, a study revealed that 92% of men and 89% of women chewed coca leaves.
Indigenous people in the Andes consider coca to be both a sacred plant and a God, in a similar way as Christians drink ritual wine. And, just as people in the Western world drink alcohol as a social lubricant, coca leaves are exchanged as gifts or used to celebrate achievements and host house guests.
When Andean cultures have marriages, coca leaves are fundamental. The bride’s father will accept a gift of coca leaves if he approves of the union, and shortly after, the groom’s father will be sent a reciprocal gift of more coca leaves.
While coca leaves don’t actually increase a person’s capacity to work, they do increase the tolerance for hard work, making it possible for people to combat the feeling of exhaustion.
The capacity of the lungs is also not increased by coca leaf consumption, but the bronchioles dilate, which allows the blood to absorb more oxygen. This is why mate de coca is often recommended on treks at high altitude in South America.
Coca consumption also helps prevent the aggregation of platelets in the blood, which makes it beneficial in the treatment of thrombosis. It can also regulate the levels of insulin in the body.
Coca leaf chewing is pretty much accepted as a way of life in much of South America, but the real problem has arisen from the Western world’s consumption of cocaine.
Cocaine addicts have many issues, including the feeling of anguish or depression, low self-esteem, diminished ambition, dependency on others, insecurity and an inability to experience pleasure.
These characteristics lead to failures in life that create more insecurity and depression, leading to dependency.
Due to all the negative effects of cocaine use, various campaigns have been implemented worldwide to eliminate its use. Unfortunately, many have failed. In fact, drug use in Bolivia has increased five-fold since preventative laws came into force in the late 1900s.
In 1961, the United Nations declared that coca should be eliminated. To enforce the law, the Bolivian police have to rely on international aid, but they have limited resources against wealthy drugs traffickers.
The Museo de Coca condones the use of drugs, although it still has an extensive menu of snacks and drinks containing the coca leaf. For the record, coca beer tastes like carbonated water and leaves your lips black!
The situation now
Today, 36 countries are legally allowed to produce cocaine (for medical use), including the USA and the UK. Peru and Bolivia are not included on this list.
Many of the problems associated with cocaine are attributed to Bolivia, but it is the illegal consumption of cocaine in the Western world that is truly to blame. Without demand, the industry would collapse.
It is interesting that the USA represents 5% of the world’s population and yet consumes 50% of the world’s cocaine supply. Each year, one million US citizens try cocaine for the first time, and almost half of all arrested individuals there have traces of cocaine in their urine.
Meanwhile, I don’t see the harm in chewing the occasional bulk to combat the effects of fatigue or altitude…unless you do it like this, in which case it’s pretty gross!