|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
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
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
WOL: How do you look
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.