September 25, 2007

WHEN POPE JOHN PAUL II VISITED BOLIVIA last year, the press published daily accounts of the number of cups of coca tea he consumed. Does the Pope do dope? Nope. At least not in Bolivian eyes. Coca tea-made from the same leaves as cocaine-is perfectly legal in Bo- livia. Often given to visitors, like the Pope, who suffer from altitude sickness (much of the country lies over 12,000 feet above sea level), it is also used for discom- forts ranging from headaches to labor pains. It is served everywhere, including the finest hotels and the U.S. Em- bassy. The same is true in Peru, where a government agency makes over 3 million coca tea bags a year and markets them to grocery stores and restaurants across the country. Most of the coca leaves used legally-10,000 tons a year in Peru and up to 15,000 in Bolivia-are chewed, not brewed. Leaves and an alkaline substance, usually wood ash, are held in the mouth like a tobacco plug until The coca releases a tiny bit of the same alkaloid that gives cocaine its kick, but in a dosage hundreds of times smaller. The people of the Andes have chewed the leaves for thousands of years to help them withstand cold,. hunger and long hours of work. Bolivian miners once received some of their pay in coca leaves; they still chew them at break time. That is not to say that coca use hasn't been viewed ambivalently. No matter how mild, it is a stimulant, and the forces of moral probity and public health have perin- odically campaigned against it for the sane reasons they have opposed tobacco and alcohol (though in its effects coca more closely resembles coffee). During the colo- nial era, the Catholic Church briefly tried to end coca cultivation, but gave up when it became clear that Span- ish silver mines would grind to a halt without it. Many studies have shown coca to be essentially harm- less, or even beneficial because the leaves provide vita- mins and minerals otherwise scarce in the diet of poor Andean residents. A United Nations study purported to show that coca use was a serious health threat. In fact, both Peru and Bolivia aresignatories to a UN agreement which commits them to wiping out coca by 1989. A UN representative now says that is "obviously a dead letter. In a poor country like Bolivia we should first concern ourselves about things like malnutrition and Chaga's disease," a usually fatal illness endemic to the Andean highlands. The UN agreement, which defines coca as a "con- trolled substance," is part of the legal foundation for the new Bolivian law. Though the law explicitly preserves the legality of traditional coca use, some see the law as an attack on coca in all its forms. "I consider attacks on coca use to be a form of ethnocide," says Bolivian an- thropologist Jos6 Mirtenbaum, now an adviser to the coca farmers. Strong words, but a now-classic study done in the late 1970s by anthropologists William Carter and Mauricio Mamani documented the many ways coca is still used socially, ritually and religiously in Bolivia. In some areas, chewing coca together is still as impor- tant a part of meeting with friends or doing business as sharing a drink is in the United States. WHILE COCA TEA IS DRUNK BY NEARLY everyone in Bolivia, coca chewing marks social class: The poorest, those less caught up in Western ways, are far more likely to do it than well-off city dwellers, many of whom view it as a dirty, backward habit. Con- versely, for some chewers, it is a sign of cultural iden- tity, distinguishing them from non-indigenous, often exploitative, "white people." Since coca boosts energy and masks hunger, however, supporters of workers' rights have sometimes campaigned against it, arguing that it allows for greater exploitation. UN officials once expressed hope that coca use would die out as society "modernized." Coca use is down, but shows no signs of disappearing. One anthropologist sug- gests, only half jokingly, "It could increase. Now that coca is under U.S. attack, coca use could be seen as anti- imperialist." A company in Cochabamba, Bolivia is now making a line of products, including coca syrup and wine. The syrup promises users improved mental, digestive and sexual functions. The wine, for "sportsmen and singers," is labeled T6nico Mariani-after the coca-based "tonic" popular in Europe and the United States at the turn of the century. Coca-based products do seem to have vast market potential world-wide. Unfortunately for the Cochabam- bans, the Coca-Cola Co. seems to have much of that market cornered with its beverage, first sold more than a century ago. Coca leaves still flavor Coke, but in 1906 the U.S. government forced Coca-Cola to begin remov- ing the cocaine alkaloid from the leaves used in the company's brew. U.S. authorities say coca leaves are dope and nobody-not even the Pope--can legally use non-"decocainated" coca products within U.S. borders.

Tags: Coca, Pope John Paul II, traditional coca use

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