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Coca no es Drouga

Written on: Tuesday November 18th, 2008

A journal entry from: Trails in 2008

This is what you see on the souvenir t-shirts in Bolivia, and it's an appropriate message to take back to the West - Coca is not a drug for Bolivians, just for us Westerners.  We went to the coca museum in La Paz - its surprising that this is the only one we have come across, considering how important it is to the people now and throughout history.  It was more like a display from someone's thesis rather than a museum, but if you took the time read it, it was very interesting. 

Coca is used by most people, especially in the highlands.  It is good for altitude sickness, is high in lots of minerals and vitamins, especially calcium, and we have found the answer to most ailments seems to be chew some coca first and seek medical intervention second!  Chewing coca is a finely tuned skill, which involves seperating the leaf from the stem with your teeth and massing up a huge ball slowly in one side of your cheek until you resemble a hamster. Then you can bite a little bit off a grey bit of chalky stone which "activates" it (I think its lime or similar but never asked).  The cocaine element of a coca leaf is around .05%, so that's one huge wad you'd be collecting in your cheek to get no more hit than you would from a cup of nescafe!  This all seemed like a lot of hard work to us, so we stuck to coca tea which is on offer everywhere and tasted better than chewing leaves.

Once cocaine started being manufactured in the early 1900's it was all downhill for the reputation of coca.  Here's some interesting things I picked out...

  1. Coca Cola was de-cocained in 1914, but they still buy approx 204 tonnes annually from Bolivia to "add flavour"
  2. Growing Coca was banned by Geneva Convention in 1961 except for industry (i.e. Coca Cola)
  3. The US is 5% of the world population, but has 50% of cocaine users
  4. Cost to make 1kg cocaine is $9,600.  Street value is 10 times more - profits generally funding weapons and terrorism
  5. Farmers "leg work" to mush the leaves in illegal cocaine factories is $5 an hour - great money for them, when they would earn this in a day.  But the acids burn away at their feet over time.
  6. Sigmund Freud was the first fashionable user - he died of nose cancer
  7. Chemicals (legal) to make cocaine from coca leaves predominantly come from the US & Europe include:
  • ether
  • sulphuric acid
  • acetone
  • hydrochloric acid
  • methanol

No wonder Kate Moss' nose disappeared!!

(so excuse me for being thick here, but why isn't there a limit on importing these chemicals rather than aerial crop spraying and punishing the Bolivian farmers??!)

So chewing these leaves is part of how these people live, and has been since before the Incan period.  Because of the western addiction to cocaine, these guys are suffering from trade sanctions, crop destruction and stablity.  Some Hostels in Colombia and Bolivia put up signs to ask tourists not to support the cocaine industry, as the profits are always funnelled into weapons, terrorism and undermining Government stability.  Something to think about before the next party ...

The museum website is http://www.cocamuseum.com