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Chewing Coca Leaves: From Sacred Ritual To 'Cocaine-Light'

In Bolivia, the coca leaf was once reserved for ancestry rituals and practices. Now it is being combined with other substances, especially amongst the very young, to create a toxic experience and dangerous concoction.

Image of a hand holding a coca leaf.

"Those who chewed the plant used to be miners and transporters, workers with a physically demanding job, or peasants and farmers."

​Mónica Oblitas

LA PAZ — There was a time when the coca leaf was considered sacred. Its use was restricted to Inca priests, the Inca, absolute kings on Earth, and the doctors of the Inca court. It was a gift from Inti, the Sun King. A divine leaf.

With the invasion of the Spaniards and the destruction of the Inca empire, commoners were able to access the leaf, which most Spaniards initially despised because they contemptuously considered it "something for Indians." But for the Mitayos, enslaved in the mines, and for the pongos (servants), coca consumption was a matter of survival. They used it to kill hunger and exhaustion from strenuous work.

The coca leaf is a plant native to South America and plays an important role in Andean societies. In addition to its medicinal virtues (stimulant, anesthetic and hunger suppressor), it has a leading role in social exchange and religious ceremonies. It is believed that its use spread to the entire Andean territory, with the Tiwanaku empire and later with the Inca empire.

The oldest coca leaf was found on the north coast of Peru and dates back to 2,500 BC. There is evidence that coca is the most widely used domestic plant from Andean prehistoric times to date, in the current territories of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru , Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

As the years passed, the Acullico, a social, ritual and medicinal practice in which a small bolus of coca is placed in the mouth between the cheek and jaw, became increasingly popular.

Those who chewed the plant used to be miners and transporters, workers with a physically demanding job, or peasants and farmers. But this has all changed.

Addiction and regulation

Daniel Torres K, born in La Paz, Bolivia, is a 50-years-old civil engineer. He is married and has two daughters. For a year now, he has been working on a cattle ranch alternating three weeks in the mountains and one week in the city of Santa Cruz.

He has always been a large man, but after a couple of months in the wilderness, his wife realized that he was losing weight. She did not give it importance, because the physical exhaustion in the work that Daniel does is intense. But after a long separation, she was alarmed: an emaciated Daniel had lost almost 15 kilos in four months.

This happened because Daniel, like thousands of Bolivian men and women of different ages and socio economic status throughout the country, chews a "bolo" of coca all the time.

This mixture makes Daniel feel that he gets less drunk when he consumes alcohol, is not tired, and is not hungry or thirsty. The “bolo” is beginning to cause cracks in his marriage, but for him it has become an addiction. Daniel is a 50-year-old adult and is aware of what the "bolo" causes him, both in terms of health and emotionally.

The situation becomes more complicated when twelve or thirteen year old children are the ones who start chewing. There are no regulations regarding the sale of coca.

Black and white image of groups of women holding a stick in their hand and treating Coca leafs.

The coca leaf was considered sacred. Its use was restricted to Inca priests, the Inca, absolute kings on Earth, and the doctors of the Inca court.


The "social Coca"

The refind version of the coca leaf is a rough process. The coca leaf is crushed and mixed with an energizer (bicarbonate, Aspirin, Nescafé, coca flour, and sometimes even diesel) plus an energy drink (Red Bull, Ciclón, Black, etc.) and, almost always, alcohol.

It's like having your batteries charged all the time.

“We beat it until it is split and freckled,” says Jenny Quispe, a seller of crushed coke, while her assistant hammers the green plastic bag under a piece of leather and on a log. “Then we sell it with the bico (baking soda) and the stevia that they add to their liking. Generally, they buy it together with Ciclón or Black (which are energy drinks) to 'wet' it. It is what is more in demand. Before it was normal coca with bicarbonate but now this is what is the most sold.” These combos range between 10 and 50 bolivian pesos (between $1.5 and $7)

Who are the customers of this new market?

According to the Comprehensive Study of the Coca Leaf in Bolivia, carried out by the National Council for the Fight Against Illicit Drug Trafficking (CONALTID), the majority of consumers are aged between 35 to 55 years (45%) and between people between the ages of 18 and 29 (40%). Its consumption is common "both among men and women in urban and rural areas, of different educational levels and from youth to adulthood."

“It's like having your batteries charged all the time: you don't get tired, you can study more, you can drink more (alcohol). I have had a couple of tremors, but they have passed quickly, I think that the 'bolo' helps me a lot, especially when I go out at night," says Rafael Salinas, a native of Santa Cruz and an Engineering student.

Added to the coke bolus is a double shot of alkaloids (stimulants) of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, taurine and more caffeine (from Red Bull). A deadly stimulant combo.

“The bus drivers live on a 'bolo' and 'energizer' mood. They walk semi doped every day. I think that's why they drive the way they drive and behave the way they behave, but the same happens with security guards at nightclubs, etc.,” says Antonio López, a resident of Santa Cruz.

Lost tradition

Carlos Crespo, a researcher and teacher at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón (UMSS) in the city of Cochabamba in the center of Bolivia, chews coca in a traditional way. He is one of the promoters of the Organic Coca Marketing Network, which until now has not been able to be implemented.

“There is no control of the quality of coca for traditional consumers. We do not know if the coca we are chewing has had chemicals such as herbicides, etc. As a chewer, I have to trust the word of the person who sells me the coca, I have no other choice,” he says.

Joaquín Chacin — a university professor who is an expert in drug policy and a researcher associated with CESU-UMSS of Cochabamba — explains that coca leaf consumption is one of the least regulated areas of the Coca Law.

"On the subject of production, and always related to the cultivation of coca for human consumption, quality certifications for the leaf are not contemplated. Crops tend to be managed according to monoculture practices, which leads to the application of herbicides, fungicides and other products that are harmful to human health in order to maintain a constant and massive production. The practice of ancestral harvesting has been lost or is marginal, giving rise to cultivation mechanisms that detract from the 'sacred' value of the leaf.”

Image of a group of women collecting coca leafs in coca plantations.

The coca leaf is a plant native to South America and plays an important role in Andean societies because of its medicinal virtues.

Marcelo Perez Del Carpio/DPA via Zuma

Health dangers

But modern combos of coca with other stimulants have raised alarm among doctors, who call them “cocaine-light.”

It can cause anything from seizures to strokes.

Cardiologist Raed Ahmad Naeem Al Hamss, a specialist at the Santa María clinic and the University Social Security in the city of Santa Cruz, says that he has treated many cases that came through emergencies. "I have already had three cases of young people who died here in Santa Cruz," he says.

According to the specialist, the frequent consumption of this combo of stimulants generates severe arrhythmias, tachycardia and even heart attacks .

Neurologist Carlos LaForcada also warns of the serious consequences of this type of coca leaf consumption: “The coca leaf is stimulant. If we add to this two powerful energizing sources such as drinks and Aspirin, for example, it can cause anything from seizures to strokes. It is, without a doubt, very dangerous for health.”

Ancestral knowledge

Coca monoculture degrades soils, and causes landslides and loss of biodiversity.

Coca fields are sometimes abandoned due to soil degradation, putting pressure on ecosystems even within protected areas. Although alternatives for the industrialization of the coca leaf have been tried, none have shown results.

However, ancestral knowledge still remains about sustainable forms of coca production with diversified crops with trees, shrubs and herbs of different kinds.

The growing demand for organic coca should encourage more sustainable crops adapted to climate change, which contribute to the food security of producing families and also protect consumers. Until this happens, lives will be at risk.

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