DRCNet Interview: Anthropologist Anthony Henman 6/20/03

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In 1978, Cambridge-educated anthropologist and author Anthony Henman published "Mama Coca," a groundbreaking work of ethnobotanical anthropology that for the first time showed Westerners not only the indigenous coca culture of the Andes but also the beginnings of the politics of coca and cocaine prohibition and how they impacted traditional cultures. Since then, Henman has continued to work as an anthropologist and expert on psychoactive substances in the Western Hemisphere, and was honored with a keynote address at the Global Social Thematic Forum in Cartagena, Colombia, this week. DRCNet spoke with Henman in Cartagena on Tuesday evening.

The Week Online: How did you come to write "Mama Coca," and what happened once it was published?

Anthony Henman: I first came to Colombia in the early 1970s. Things were wide open then; there was an open cannabis market in Bogota, and cocaine was just beginning to appear. At that point, I wasn't really interested in cocaine; I was more of a toker at the time. In 1973, I finished my university studies at Cambridge and was offered a job in Popayan, the regional capital of the traditional coca growing area in Colombia. It was very much a part of the gringo trail at the time, with all kinds of traveling hippies coming through town. There was very good weed, the Colombian red bud. And then there was the very traditional country scene as well. I was amazed at peoples' different reactions to the coca leaf. Having lived through all that, and given my interest in the plant and its traditional use, I couldn't ignore what was beginning to happen at the time. That was the first area that set up cocaine processing kitchens, although they produced pounds, not tons. And the cocaine always came out different, sometimes pink, sometimes off-white, which proved that is was coming from a number of small labs, not the monopoly business we have now. Actually, I doubt that even today it is as much a monopoly as portrayed by the media.

"Mama Coca" was originally conceived as a classic conventional anthropological description of coca use, and cocaine was not originally part of what I had planned. But cocaine was coming on top of the traditional use, and I couldn't ignore it. While people were interested in the ethno-botanical stuff, what made "Mama Coca" notorious was that it was the first time anyone got into print with criticisms and allegations against the war on drugs and the drug warriors. There was a chapter in the middle of the book that dealt with that. For my efforts, I got harassed by immigration officials for years to come, and in Britain the book was seized by police and the publisher was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. I guess they read the act broadly, since it is supposed to cover works likely to "corrupt or deprave." We got a lot of notoriety in the press, but it didn't do us much good, since all the copies had been seized and were sitting in a warehouse. The prosecution lost the case in 1984, but it still took us nine more months to get the books back, and by then everyone had lost interest. It's a good example of how official harassment can be effective even when they don't have a good legal case. It wasn't too good for my career as an author either, because it discouraged British publishers from publishing books about drugs or ever having anything to do with me again.

WOL: What have you been doing since then?

Henman: I've done research on lots of other sorts of drugs and drug use. I studied mushrooms in Wales for my doctoral thesis, and I did a lot of work on drug prescribing and needle exchange programs in Liverpool and New York, including a major evaluation of needle exchanges in the late 1990s in New York. It was an annual report for the Department of Health. I've also published a few papers about empowering drug users and their organizations in that context.

WOL: Are you affiliated with the organization Mama Coca?

Henman: No. They asked my permission to use the name, and I said of course. We also correspond all the time, but I am not a member.

WOL: What are you doing these days?

Henman: I'm working on a research project in Peru on mescaline-containing cacti, specifically the San Pedro. There are three different species of San Pedro, with slight differences among the three. I'm trying to collect as many as I can in their native environments. I am not a chemist, so I try to feel what the difference may be by subjective experimentation. I've tried different ways of preparing it, but it still tastes pretty awful. Still, it is very much the basis of traditional medicine in northern Peru and coastal Peru. It is the basis for divination and curing, but I find the doses they use for those purposes disappointingly small. People feel a little strange, but they don't really trip. The curanderos, however, are a different story; they sip it all day long. It is not discussed as a drug problem; in fact, it is even legal in the US, and you will find it in every garden store that carries cacti, because it is very good for root stock. It spread all around the world as root stock, and that was before anyone knew it contained mescaline.

My main interest has always been the coca leaf, but while it has interesting botanical, medicinal and ethnographic aspects, it is a subject that is becoming over-determined by the current politics of the cocaine business -- the violence, the corruption, all that -- so it difficult to talk about coca leaves as a traditional path in Colombia. You can do that in Bolivia or Peru, where it is still legal, but here in Colombia, when the public hears coca, it thinks of Pablo Escobar. I find it tedious and tiresome that one cannot talk about the interesting uses of coca in Colombia. This drug prohibition and drug trafficking nightmare will eventually end, or if not, the whole planet will be destroyed by it. I hope drug law reform will end this nightmare and people can get back to understanding these plants as they really are.

WOL: How do you look at coca?

Henman: Coca is not just an object for our consumption, but a historical subject in itself. First, we have to erase from our minds the image of the damned leaf. Coca doesn't deserve the sobriquet. It's a plant, and like every other species, it wants to reproduce. It is a hermaphrodite, it is very fertile, and it is chock full of alkaloids. It is a dangerous plant, some say, a liar, a traitor. But I say that this slander of the coca plant is hideously repugnant. After 50 years of war against coca, we have not met one goal of the anti-coca policies. The plant continues to reproduce. Even worse, every time there is a change of ministers, they come out with the same banalities about how they will fight the plant endlessly and how they will win. They can't win, but they always say they are on the verge of winning. A war against coca can never bring anything positive to the planet, despite what they say. We have to change our perspective completely and become at peace with coca as it deserves, for it is a plant with many virtues. Perhaps they can't eradicate coca because the objective is mistaken; perhaps it is because the real objectives of the war on drugs have nothing to do with their declared objectives. But I think this will pass; I can imagine a day when it is cultivated on a legal basis wherever it is advisable.

This war on coca is violence and killing without end. They say they are doing this killing and poisoning for the good of all. How absurd! It is absurd because what they accomplish is to make coca part of a malignant trade all over the planet. This has people thinking about the legalization of coca. That would be good. It would eliminate the negative aspects, especially the criminal aspect, which, after all, are not part of the coca plant, but part of drug prohibition.

-- END --
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Issue #292, 6/20/03 DRCNet Needs Your Help | Editorial: No Drug War Exception to Good and Evil | The Gathering in Cartagena: The Global Social Forum Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, War, and the Drug Trade | DRCNet Interview: Nancy Obregón, Sub-Secretary General of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers | DRCNet Interview: Anthropologist Anthony Henman | Dozens of Students to Embark This Weekend on 50-Mile "Skate for Justice" | Newsbrief: 12 Tulia Victims Walk Out of Jail | No Rockefeller Reform This Session | Candidate Dean Bending on Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: RAVE Act Reverberations | Newsbrief: Teachers Against Prohibition Reborn as Educators for Sensible Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Kentucky Supreme Court Tightens Law on Methamphetamine Prosecutions | Newsbrief: Thais Get Drug War Help from US | Newsbrief: US-Peru Anti-Drug Flights Set to Resume | Newsbrief: Israeli Company Receives Notice of Allowance from US Patent Office for Synthetic Marijuana Pharmaceuticals | Teen Facing 26 Years for First-Time Marijuana Offense Sentenced to Two | Marc Mauer Testimony on Comparative International Rates of Incarceration | The Reformer's Calendar
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