David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
United States drug warriors have been quick to condemn Bolivia's cocaleros as "enemies" or "criminals" -- for example, an unnamed senior State Department official quoted in the Washington Post who didn't think the mounting conflict was "all that terrible" and whose profound analysis of the situation was "We cannot forget that what they are doing is illegal" (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/153.html#boliviaconflict).
Not so fast. Producing cocaine for distribution to the black market is illegal, but coca is another story. There are a range of coca products that are perfectly legal in countries with more rational governments than ours: coca leaves, the chewing of which is a staple of many Andean peasants' diets, reportedly used throughout the lengthy recent negotiations with the government; coca tea, a popular beverage that helps dwellers in Bolivia's mountainous regions cope with the thin air; coca toothpaste, to name a few.
The major remaining sticking point, the point of greatest intransigence by the US government and therefore the Bolivian government, is the cocaleros' demand that each family be allowed to use a small amount of land to grow legal coca to supply those markets. Bolivia's farmers have grown coca for generations to fill these needs; and the plant plays an important part of the nation's rural culture. It is also the only way that many of them can make a living for themselves and their families.
Actually, coca has some legal uses that do make it to the US. Pharmaceutical cocaine is one; cocaine's common medical uses, primarily as a topical anesthetic, are more limited today than once upon a time, but are still important. But there's another use the coca plant has, here and around the world, that is much more common. Ubiquitous would be a better word, in fact.
Coca is a basic ingredient of the soft drink Coca-Cola.
Yes, Coca-Cola, sold and advertised everywhere, available in supermarkets, street stands, vending machines the world over.
They remove the cocaine from the coca leaves before making the Coca-Cola.
Well, now they do. Original Coca-Cola used the coca leaves as they were, cocaine and all. As public suspicion of the new "wonder drug" grew early this century, the Coca-Cola company voluntarily began to extract the cocaine through a chemical process. Back then, that refining was done in a plant in the town of Maywood, New Jersey. (One town over from Hackensack, which some of you may remember as the target of Lex Luthor's second nuclear warhead in the first Superman movie -- also referenced in Billy Joel's "Moving Out.") This history is recounted in detail in the book "For God, Country and Coca-Cola."
Not that the company will publicly acknowledge any of this. Call up the Coca-Cola public relations number, and ask them. The only thing they'll tell you is "Cocaine has never been an added ingredient in Coca-Cola." Does that mean that it wasn't added because cocaine occurs naturally in the coca leaf and they didn't remove it? "Cocaine has never been an added ingredient in Coca-Cola." Does today's Coca-Cola use the de-cocainized coca leaf as one of its ingredients? "Cocaine has never been an added ingredient in Coca-Cola." Okay, you have a nice day too.
So getting back to the present, we have a plant that is grown legally in countries which neighbor Bolivia to supply a popular beverage to homes, workplaces and schools throughout the world. But idiot drug war bureaucrats in the US are so insistent that Bolivian farmers not be allowed to grow it, for this or any other use, that they are willing to see the country taken to the brink of civil war rather than let up.
None of this should be taken to suggest that it is possible to control coca's illegal uses. Eradication programs, wherever they've been tried, have only succeeded in moving the coca cultivation from place to place. One of the victims of this process is the rain forest, which growers will often cut down to plant new coca fields after being displaced from their previous locations by eradication.
A chart we made last year illustrates this effect: while coca growing in each of the major producing countries sometimes went up or down in a given country, the total has remained fairly constant since cocaine use in consuming countries like the United States began to increase two decades ago (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/coca-growing.gif). George Bush was the first president to really put this to a good test -- as Mike Gray puts it in the book Drug Crazy, when George Bush left office, "some 200,000 farmers were growing coca in an area that had been largely rain forest on the day Bush was inaugurated."
The drug warriors would understand this if they allowed themselves. It's not worth destroying Bolivia for, it's not worth destroying Colombia.
It's time for a little honesty.