The coca plant may come off as innocent with its bright red beads and perky green leaves, but the friendly exterior masks the soul of a deviant. Or so, we thought.
Coca Got Roots
The “coca” plant refers to two species amongst the 230 in the Erythroxylum genus.
The coca plant has a complex history. As the oldest cultivated medicinal plants species on Earth, we can trace back its usage 8000 years. In a traditional context, coca is not a new drug. It is a substance fully integrated into the fabric of the community. Their perspective on the plant is that it is nutritionally dense. Meaning, its applications are broad. The range of its medicinal properties span from helping enhance physical performance, to strengthening community bonds, to dental care.
In the evolution of its history, the coca plant became world-renown through two billion dollar industries – Coca Cola and Cocaine. The impact of the latter impressed a negative label on cocaine, and in proxy the coca plant. This stigma has quelled scientific research on its medicinal value.
A recent study is bringing back coca’s superstar potential.
If one were to penetrate into the recent study published about coca, one could identify the source of its stigmatization. It largely has to do with the way the substance has been manipulated thus far. Somewhere along the way, it appears that our Western culture developed an extreme relationship with substances and even more bizarre stories about drugs.
For example, the traditional way of consuming coca leaves is through the act of chewing. This results in a slow-time release of the stimulant throughout the day. That is a very different method of consuming than cocaine –a product of coca–is typically used.
The study, published last week, not only produces substantial evidence of coca’s health benefits but flips the negative narrative about this substance right on its head.
A large part of the world perceives cocaine as one of the most dangerous substances that exists. This study, in contrast, potentiates coca’s ability to make a superstar comeback as a positive tool in our day-to-day lives. Envisioning a way to work legally with this substance could benefit not only the health of a particular individual, but help dismantle the system of the illicit drug trade. This would create a significant economic and social impact on the South American countries that cultivate coca leaves.
Right now, most of the coca production goes straight into the black market. Once it ships around the world, it appreciates a value of 94-143 billion dollars. That’s a significant amount of money that could be reallocated to help foster economic ties between modern medicine and the source.
Introduction to the West
Cocaine became a sensation upon its discovery in the 19th century. Coca is a natural stimulant, which drew scientific inquiry in order to develop its potential. Initially, coca had a bright and promising future in the New World as an ancient medicinal plant. Coca even led to the development of anesthetic-assisted surgery and pharmaceuticals, for example. A fact that got lost in the shadow of its reputation.
By 1812, its superstar status had already hit the papers. Gentleman’s Magazine dubbed coca, “the elixir of life.” The editorial boasted that coca was a kind of miracle appetite suppressant, ‘Wouldn’t have to eat for days, for weeks,’ which doesn’t seem like a realistic portrait. Nevertheless, it held–and still holds–the possibility of helping curb appetite. In other words, coca also facilitates digestion and treatment of related issues. (It is important to remember that not enough data exists to conclude this). This may factor into its ability to regulate that system overall through the body, mind, and spirit.
Though it took a couple rounds of experimentation, chemist Albert Niemann isolated and named cocaine in 1859. Upon its discovery to the early 1900s, cocaine entered into our world in a golden age. At the time, all social classes were consuming opium and cocaine-based elixirs. Fans throughout the silent film industry helped to sensationalize cocaine.
Perhaps coca was immediately boxed in the spectacle that was created. No one really knew what they were doing with the substance. The hype took off faster than science could keep up. This is an important lesson from history to remember as psychedelics are entering a Renaissance period. According to Western medicine, experience has to be measurable. Thus, our instruments for determining value are different.
Angelo Mariana, a Corsican, was the 1st cocaine millionaire.
After attending a debate on the benefits of coca and cocaine, it inspired Mariana to further investigate the substance, reading emerging literature and traveler’s accounts. Through the course of his own experience, Mariana found that the leaves were the most potent, but bitter-tasting.
He began soaking coca leaves in Bordeaux wine to make a “tonic,” Vin Mariani. It became an enormous success with a star-studded list of fans that included everyone from–allegedly of course–Queen Victoria, Ibsen, Sarah Bernhardt, Thomas Edison to the Pope – even Freud.
Freud’s Love of Cocaine is legendary
Dominic Streatfield, author of Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography went so far as to attribute Freud as the person “…responsible for the emergence of cocaine as a recreational pharmaceutical.” As a treatment for depression and indigestion, Freud boasted of its success in papers, one of which he published is “Uber Coca.” Furthermore, he claimed that cocaine cured morphine addiction, another claim that might, this study shows, hold merit. But Freud, along with the rest of the world, also caught onto the addictive properties of coca. Thus at the end of the 19th century, the public’s favor was waning, as the dark cloud of addiction and toxicity began looming over the coca plant.
As coca’s star reputation was dwindling, John Stith Pemberton invented the Coca-Cola formula, which businessman Asa Griggs Candler brought, patented, and marketed. Coca Cola helped coca reach iconic status in the West. Thus, the coca plant integrated into the fabric of our society, even if it was just an idea that went wrong.
Though the formula remains to this day a secret, Coca Cola’s two main ingredients were coca leaves and kola nuts. By 1903, the public demanded that Coca Cola remove the dangerous substance from its formula. It became, nonetheless, the biggest soft drink in the 20th century and beyond.
In 1912, the United States government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths in one year, which led to the drug’s official prohibition in 1922. As an illicit, stigmatized drug, this prevented scientists from researching– in more depth–the actual medicinal potential of coca – until now.
Comeback Kid Coca
According to this evocative study, the coca plant is brimming with untapped nutritional, medical, and pharmacological potential. Dental care, digestion issues, a dietary supplement, an anti-depressant and ADHD medication. These are the few applications that researches have found based on traditional knowledge and their own inquiry. In fact, the study even pointed to its possible effectiveness in treating addiction to stimulants. But the benefits of opening new pathways for coca to reach mainstream medicine extend far beyond one’s individual health.
Agriculturally, most of the coca plants are processed into cocaine for the illicit drug market. Once the cocaine ships around the world, its value estimates around 94-143 billion dollars in black market value. Thus putting more research into cocaine, and its potential use could bring significant economic and environmental impact on these regions. The coca could potentiate a host of drugs and treatments that offer safer alternatives to cocaine. This could encourage the dethroning of the illicit drug trade which has a stronghold on coca production and opens up a global market that could redirect the money to coca farmers.
At the beginning of the 20th century, cocaine was–and still is–considered one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs, which brought about its ban in 1922. Its prohibition spawned one of the biggest, most infamous industries on the black market, but all of the negativity and legal restrictions prevented further scientific research into the plant’s medicinal value. This recent study found that underneath all these stories, coca might end up being a superstar healer–a cosmic joke.
As Western science is re-evaluating these substances, it is crucial that we build bridges between traditional knowledge and modern medicine. The people that have been using coca for thousand of years, simply through their extensive experience, have a relationship with plants, in general, that is symbiotic. Life supports life, this is a relationship between us and our resources that, are by definition, consciousness. Which is a different construct than we, in modern Western culture, have about the clinical “drugs” versus the “dangerous drugs.” It doesn’t make any sense, actually. Thus, hopefully, psychedelics will encourage a reuniting of ancient knowledge and modern practice.
Much like all the psychedelics, it seems, we’re finding out that we had a simplistic, highly emotionally skewed, narrative of drugs. We are beginning to refine the harsh edges that inexperience, rapid expansion, and fear has produced in our society around the subject of drugs. Meaning, we’re learning how to work with the plants as tools and not some scary foreign object that intends to cause damage.