Notes on Coca

Erythroxylon coca and E. novogranatense


I.        The plant

A.     Coca, Erythroxylon coca and E. novogranatense of the Coca family, Erythroxylaceae, (a family of 1 genus and ca. 250 species of shrubs and medium-sized trees) is a domesticated tropical shrub, native to the Amazon and the eastern slope of the Andes in Bolivia and Peru.  Related wild species are still found growing there.

1.       E. coca is from southern Peru, Bolivia, and the Amazonian rainforest.

2.       E. novogranatense is from Colombia and the north coastal deserts of Peru.

3.       Like coffee, tea, and cacao, it is an understory species of the moist tropical forests.

B.      Coca is grown for its leaves, shiny, evergreen leaves, which are picked 3 or 4 times per year,

 and then dried.  The alkaloids are found in the leaves.

C.      Coca is not only integrated into Andean culture, but is also an integral part of the region’s ecosystem.

1.       It has few predators and pests (in part because of its cocaine content in the leaves).

2.       It will grow on poor soils and steep slopes, where many other plants will not grow.

3.       It protects against soil erosion.

4.       It lives for 40 years or more.

5.       It tolerates many harvests.

D.      Coca fields may be found in jungle clearings along with yuca (cassava root), pineapple, and chilies.

E.       Shrubs are ca. 3’ tall, and continuously harvested.


II.  Archaeology

A.     Archaeological evidence of coca chewing includes small ceramic containers used to hold lime, from the Valdivia culture of southwestern Ecuador. These containers have been dated back to 2100 BCE (4000 years ago).

1.       A ceramic figurine dated between 1600 and 1500 BCE from this same culture clearly depicts the bulging cheek of a coca chewer. It is the earliest surviving example of a long tradition of ceramic figurines representing coqueros (coca chewers).

2.       In light of evidence, it is likely that coca chewing, and possibly coca cultivation, was established in Ecuador by 2500 BCE (4500 yrs. Ago), making coca one of the earliest plants domesticated in the New World.

3.       Timothy Plowman, student of one of the most gifted ethnobotanists of the 20th century, Richard Evans Schultes, estimates that E. coca was brought under cultivation 7000 yrs ago in the eastern Andes; Amazonian coca, cultivated in the western Amazon, was domesticated much more recently.

4.       To the Incas, coca plant was important both socially and economically.

a.       According to myth, a god created coca to alleviate hunger and thirst among the people.

b.       Inca civilization considered the coca plant as sacred and chewing coca was mostly restricted to the ruling classes. Soldiers, workers, runners were permitted to chew coca leaves for endurance.

c.       By the 15th century, the use of coca was widespread among the Incas; however, casual chewing was considered a sacrilege.

d.       Economically, coca leaves were used as a form of payment and could be used in exchange for potatoes, grains, furs, fruits, and other essential goods.

III.    Andean People

A.     Andean peasants and miners have traditionally consumed coca by sucking on a wad (quid) of leaves, keeping them in their cheek for hours at a time.

1.       Often the coca is combined with chalk or ash (some kind of calcium carbonate or alkali material such as lime or crushed sea shells).  They would wear vessels of dried gourds around their necks, containing powdered lime used in chewing.

2.       The alkalinity helps dissolve the alkaloids into the saliva, stimulating the absorption of cocaine.

3.       Chewing coca reduces hunger pangs and workers say it gives them the strength and endurance to work many hours, doing hard, physical labor, at high altitudes (ca. 15,000’), and often in extreme cold.  (This was evident enough that after the Spanish Conquest, when native populations were enslaved and forced to work in the mines under incredibly harsh conditions and little food, the Spanish overseers recognized that the productivity and endurance of the enslaved Indians increased dramatically when they were given their traditional coca leaves to chew. King Phillip II of Spain then declared coca leaves necessary to the well-being of the Indians (and of the Spanish economic enterprise), and set aside land in the Andes for coca cultivation.

4.       Native Indians also made a tea with coca leaves, and applied a coca plaster to wounds as a poultice.

5.       Andean peasants used the leaves to make prediction and to diagnose illnesses - leaf shapes, sizes, and manner of falling to the ground are believed to represent different spirits and symbolize different parts of the body.

6.       In Colombia, coca functions much like coffee or chewing gum in our society:  It is used primarily for 2 situations. One, in the mornings, if any coca remained from the night before, men would consume it before going off to work (fishing, felling trees, mining) and, two, as a social ritual in afternoons and evenings, when work is done and people of the village come together to prepare coca and talk.

B.      Nutrients

1.       Indians used food and coca together (use of coca leaves doesn’t preclude the taking in of food). They may follow a good meal with a chew to improve digestion. (As a matter of fact, the physician-botanist-author, Andrew Weil, has recommended that the coca leaf should be studied for possible use as a remedy for stomach and intestinal problems and as a treatment for acute motion sickness).


2.       Analysis of coca leaves shows them to contain significant amounts of calcium and iron (more than any other food crop in the Andes), as well as B-vitamins.



3.       The low incidence of osteoporosis among Andean Indians is due, in part, to coca use, since the Andean diet is otherwise low in calcium.


IV.    Alkaloids


A.     We know that alkaloids are naturally-occurring organic molecules containing nitrogen and is widely distributed in plants.

1.       Caffeine (coffee, tea, cacao), nicotine (tobacco), morphine (poppies), mescaline (peyote), theobromine (chocolate), piperine (black pepper), strychnine, quinine, codeine, atropine, to name a number of alkaloids.

B.      Coca plant contains many alkaloids, ca. 14, the major one being cocaine.

1.       Concentrations of cocaine vary by region and by plant variety.

2.       Coca considered as higher quality by traditional users, has lower concentrations of cocaine. The smaller amount of cocaine (alkaloid) is associated with a “sweet” or less bitter taste, and was traditionally preferred for chewing.

3.       In the drug trade, the greater the alkaloid content allows for more cocaine to be extracted for a given yield of leaves, and is thus more profitable for the grower.

V.      Cocaine

A.     Contemporary social history of Erythroxylon coca began in the 1850s when Albert Niemann first isolated cocaine from coca leaves.

B.      Niemann quickly realized cocaine’s anesthetic properties (he tasted it with his tongue).

1.       As a local anesthetic, cocaine temporarily blocks the transmissions of nerve impulses at the site of application.

2.       Many of our synthetic local anesthetics, such as Novocain (chemically known as procaine) and Xylocaine (lidocaine) are structurally similar to cocaine, and have been modeled from cocaine.

3.       Cocaine also constricts blood vessels, and therefore reduces blood flow when applied locally. This has made cocaine the anesthetic of choice for ear, nose, and throat surgery, and was formerly used for eye surgery as well.

4.       Cocaine drains the sinuses, and was an important ingredient in over-the-counter medications to treat asthma, hay fever, and sinusitis.

5.       Cocaine was used to reduce cravings of opium addicts and alcoholics.

C.      However, cocaine was primarily known for its stimulating properties.


1.       It is a powerful stimulant to the central nervous system (CNS), and produces a short-lived euphoric high which is accompanied by a burst of energy and alertness, likened to an intense adrenaline rush.


2.       Duration of this high varies with method of administration - snorting (up to a few hours), injection (15-30 minutes), smoking (up to 1 hour).



3.       Physiologically, cocaine increases heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, body temperature, and dilates the pupils.


4.       these effects are related to neurotransmitters; therefore, they continue to act, stimulating the nervous system and producing hyperactive effects associated with cocaine use. [neurotransmitters - chemicals that transmit neural messages from 1 neuron (nerve cell) to another. E.g. acetylcholine, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine.



5.       The stimulating and euphoric effects of cocaine gained it wide popularity in the U.S. and Europe.

a.       Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sigmund Freud (cardiac ailments and nervous exhaustion, morphine addicts) were enthusiastic users and supporters of cocaine. In literature of the 19th century, the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books was a cocaine user.

b.       Vin Mariani (1863), a  Bordeaux wine mixed with cocaine became a very popular beverage in the late 19th century; it received enthusiastic testimonies from people like Pope Leo XIII and King Alphonse XIII of Spain, and Auguste Rodin.

c.       Inspired by the success of Vin Mariani, the American ,John Stythe Pemberton, in 1885 concocted French Wine Coca - Ideal Nerve and Tonic Stimulant. The name never really caught on and, 1 year later, Pemberton called his “brain tonic and intellectual beverage”, Coca-Cola. In addition to cocaine, it contained caffeine from the African kola nuts, caramel coloring, and sugar to sweeten the naturally bitter taste of the alkaloid. (A federal law in 1904 required cocaine to be removed from Coca-Cola, but the leaf extract is still used for its natural flavors. The cocaine-containing extract is sold to a pharmaceutical company that purifies it into cocaine hydrochloride for use as an anesthetic).



A.     The form in which coca is taken influences the cocaine concentration and thus its effects.

1.       Alkaloids from coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru are extracted with kerosene and other organic solvents (or put into large vats of diluted sulfuric acid to extract the alkaloids) to produce a cocaine sulfate paste.

2.       The paste is shipped to Colombia

3.       There, the paste is refined, clandestinely, into white cocaine hydrochloride powder. In this form, cocaine has a purity of up to 75%, and can reach the brain within minutes after snorting (less active when ingested; low water solubility). Colombia produces ca. 80% of the world’s cocaine.

4.       Cocaine powder is shipped to Mexico or Bahamas, and from there to the U.S.

5.       Cocaine hydrochloride is cut with various adulterants (additives to reduce concentration of cocaine, such as lactose - milk sugar. The street drug averages ca. 12% cocaine hydrochloride - at this concentration it can be snorted and the alkaloid absorbed thru the mucous membrane of the nose.

6.       Free-basing and crack were modifications made in the 1980s, designed to produce quicker and stringer highs.

a.       Free-basing - purifies the powder, accomplished, in part, by boiling it in an ether solution to produce pure cocaine, the free base. (Ether is highly flammable and explosive). Free-base is then smoked in a water pipe to produce an intense high which can reach the brain in 15 seconds.

b.       Crack - a form of free-base prepared by heating a cocaine hydrochloride solution with baking soda. The resulting compound forms solid chunks which can be broken into tiny “rocks”, each costing a fraction of cocaine powder. Crack is also smoked and produces a high in seconds.

7.       In contrast, in the traditional chewing of coca leaves the effect of cocaine is far less potent.

a.       Coca leaves are ca. 1% cocaine, and contain several other alkaloids and compounds that modify cocaine’s effects.

b.       The drug is released slowly over many hours, and does not reach the brain for approx. 15 minutes. Mild effect.

c.       Coqueros consume ca. 30 grams (little more than 1 oz.) of coca leaves per day. [30 grams = 150 milligrams of cocaine, delivered over the course of a day]

8.       Coca and cocaine may act like 2 different pharmacological agents.

a.       Low doses of cocaine, entering the brain slowly, may activate only the norepinephrine system, producing alertness and dissipating fatigue.

b.       Higher doses, taken in ways that cause rapid rises in concentration of the drug in the blood and the brain may, in addition, activate the dopamine system, producing the intense, short-lived euphoria that cocaine users seek.


VII.  Eradication

A.     A hectare of coca in 1987 yielded $6400 to a peasant in Champara, Bolivia (coffee - $1500; bananas - $600; corn - $300)

B.      In the interior markets of Bolivia and Peru, one can purchase 100 kg of coca leaves for approx. $66. This can be processed with simple techniques into 2 kg of crude paste or 1.5 kg of pure cocaine. One kg of this can be purchased, illegally, for $1500-$2500 in Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia. When transported to NYC, that 1 kg would wholesale for $25,000-$35,000. If that kilogram is broken up into small “lots”, its retail value soars to $100,000, more than 1,500 times the value of unprocessed leaves.

C.      Eradication is difficult because:

1.       profits to peasants

2.       larger profits to “manufacturers” and processors.

3.       cultural integration of the plant and coca leaf chewing in South American-Andean society. Traditional and legal uses.

4.       on a macroeconomic scale, coca brings $400-$600 million per year into Bolivia.



On October, 1992, on the occasion of the Columbus quincentenary, thousands of angry Indians marched on Cuzco (Incan capital in Peru) to call for n end to "five hundred years of European domination and oppression." High on their list of demands was cessation of attempts by the U.S. and the United Nations to do away with coca. A pamphlet circulating through Cuzco during the march, entitled "The Sacred Coca Leaf Lives: 500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance" began with these words:


            Coca is an Andean product, whose domestication and use date back 4 thousand to 6 thousand years.

            Cocaine is a European invention of 130 years ago

            Both products stimulate the cultural values of their respective societies:

            Coca enhances community, sociability, and the communal spirit.

            Cocaine is the maximum expression of so-called "Western" individualism; it isolates the individual, not only from other people but from all reality.