The coca leaf is not cocaine

Orsetta Bellani, El Reportero (Photo: O.B.)

The coca leaf is not cocaine, but a key plant in the culture of Andean peoples. Jorge Ronderos Valderrama, a professor at the University of Caldas (Colombia) and coordinator of the research team and the magazine “Culture and drugs” asserts this. Valderrama spoke with Orsetta Ronderos Bellani, contributor with El Reportero in San Francisco.

Professor Ronderos Valderrama, what is the process of transformation of the coca leaf into cocaine?
Cocaine is an alkaloid of the coca plant, which has other alkaloids, such as nicotine and caffeine. Macerating coca leaves and using substances such as hydrochloride, sulfate, and in some cases, gasoline, is removing the “glass” of cocaine, which is a white powder. Often the alkaloid, the cocaine, is misnamed coca. “Coca” is the plant, which is a very different thing.

In which ways do indigenous peoples of the Andes use the coca leaf?

In the Andean cultures the coca plant is used for shamanic and healing ends, for some infections such as abscess. The traditional use is the mambeo, which consists of chewing it and mixing it with saliva, and is usually done with a purpose and in a particular ritual context. For example the Indians of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia say they chew coca to “weave thoughts”. The coca is also used as food.

What are the largest producers of coke? And which countries are the largest consumers of cocaine?

The countries that produce the coca plant are Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, in a part of the Andes. Cocaine is often produced illegally in these countries and most of it is sent to the United States, being the largest consumer, covering 70 percent of the global consumption.

What definition of drug has been adopted by your research team? According to this definition, which substances can be considered drugs?

Usually by “drug”, people refer to some forbidden psychoactive substances. Instead, my research team considers the concept of drug from a wider point of view, or as any biologically active substance, which at the moment it is incorporated into a body, it produces change and, specifically in human beings, a change in the mood. This definition includes substances such as sugar, chocolate, cigarettes, chili, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, caffeine, drugs, soft drinks, alcohol and perfume.

From what point of view does your research team study drugs?

We study drugs in the way that emerge in every culture, why and how they are used, in which doses they produce health problems. For example alcohol, a drug that in our Western culture is consumed for millennia, if used properly is not negative: a given dose of alcohol can be a remedy, but used improperly is poison. Another example is sugar. There have been identified about one hundred diseases associated with its use, or rather abuse, and we know the case of a Peruvian community in the Amazon where the population is addicted to sugar: they compulsively consume it and they have serious health problems.

How did drugs emerge?

Many drugs are born as a remedy to cure a disease or, more generally, have had medical use. For example, in the sixteenth century, sugar was not consumed massively as it is done today, but it was used by doctors in European courts to cure melancholy. Another example is opium, which in the nineteenth century in Europe was used to cure various kinds of diseases, even to calm the crying of children. Cocaine, created in Europe around 1880, was the first anesthetic used in medicine. Obviously it is a substance that can produce very negative effects.

What determines, therefore, the term “drug” or “medicine”?

It depends on the cultural context, where medicine and science contribute to the formation of a culture. If we take the case of the depressed people, who are dependent subjects of antidepressant drugs, we see that our society consider them “good drugs” because they become legal drugs.

Why in the course of history and within the same culture some substances passed from being considered “medicines” to be considered “drugs”?

The definition is based on economic factors and mechanisms of power, rather than on the criteria for their degree of hazard. In Russia, during the time of the czars, coffee was banned: consumers of coffee were considered terrorists and persecuted, imprisoned and a piece of ear was cut from them in order to identify them as enemies of the system.

What is your opinion on the ban on the production, consumption and marketing of drugs as a strategy to combat drug trafficking?

Even if a certain substance is prohibited, while someone is interested in consuming it, someone will produce it. This is why in economy we talk about the laws of demand and supply. It is a fact that drug trafficking is a product of prohibition, that criminal cartels would lose much of their profits if the state legalizes it and controls the production and sale of drugs. During the Summit of Americas, which was held in Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) in April 2012, Latin American governments recognized the failure of the “war on drugs”, which breeds corruption and becomes a war against population.

Article published by El Reportero on february 2013.

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