I went to Bolivia in late July and early August to pick up my 20-year-old daughter, who had been studying and working on both her Spanish and on making a couple of documentaries. Just as any tourist anywhere, I was exposed to the usual array of T-shirts, knickknacks and ordinary run-of-the-mill tsotchkes (untranslatable from the original Spanish).

Instead of "I Luv New York" or "I Luv Transitive Pictograph Verbalizations," or "This Beer Is Making Making Me Awesome," one of the most common Bolivian T's showed what resembled a large, green Bay Leaf with the logo: "La Hoja de La Coca No Es Droga." (The Coca Leaf Is Not a Drug.)

Bolivia was named after Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, the Spanish-American independentista. Before it was Bolivia, it was Incaland and before the Inca Empire, there were Aymaras and, before them, Tiwanakans ruled.

One of the defining characteristics of Bolivia then and now was the act of picchando coca. Put a quid of coca leaves in the cheek, sometimes adding lime, quinoa or potash, and let the plant' alkaloids do their work as a tonic for altitude, hunger or a pick-me-up for a worker in a mine or a campesino tilling the fields, a stimulant that puts Red Bull to shame because of its mild, non-jittery yet still-noticeable effect.

The United Nations was supposed to put this ancient tradition to rest. Article 49 of The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs proclaimed: "Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention."

Fat chance.

Evo Morales, Bolivia's president, is a cocalero, a coca grower and still head of the coca gr0wer's union, who became the country's first indigenous president in 2006. Through the ballot box, Morales brought the type of social revolution that Che Guevara had tried to initiate 40 years earlier through armed struggle. Morales, an admirer, has hung a portrait of Che made out of coca leaves in the presidential palace.

During his tenure, Morales has showed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency the door and put the kibosh on the type of wholesale eradication of coca bushes that is very much in the spirit of the 1961 convention. Morales's message: Coca si, cocaina no.

His government asserted that the traditional role of the leaf in this Andean society should be venerated by encouraging businesses that utilize coca in tea, liquor, flour, toothpaste and medicines. Morales even added his blessing to a new soft drink named Coca Colla, a name that alludes, not only to the original beverage, but also to the Bolivian highlanders, known as Kollas. Meanwhile, the government has pursued, not always successfully, the narcotraficantes who refine the leaf into cocaine, a process that requires heavy chemical processing of hundreds of grams of leaf to make one gram of cocaine. (In June, General Rene Sanabria, the former head of Bolivia’s counter-narcotics police, pleaded guilty in Miami to a conspiracy to import cocaine into the U.S.)

So what was my summer vacation like? Drinking coca tea or masticating the leaf produces a mild buzz, but nothing compared to the afterburner-like boost from downing a Venti cappuccino. If Albert Niemann of Göttingen University hadn’t isolated the cocaine alkaloid from the leaf in 1859, coca might be considered just another listing in the South American herbal pharmacopoeia. Sigmund Freud would have had to get his kicks from champagne. Bottles of the dried leaves might have sat in obscurity on the shelf at the Vitamin Shoppe or GNC alongside the gingko and St. John’s Wort, or perhaps they would have been “discovered” like the Brazilian açaí berry and subjected to a global marketing blitz as the new superfood. Either way, Morales and the Bolivian T-shirt makers are probably right.

La hoja de la coca no es droga.




Image Source: Wikimedia Commons