Coca, the plant of the gods

Illegal narcotics are often poorly understood.  To mark the launch of spy thriller Rogue Elements, which tackles the controversial question of drug reform, Alasdair Moore gives us a botanist’s view of the fascinating plants behind three of the most notorious substances.  His final subject is coca:


Erythroxylum coca is a discreet-looking evergreen shrub or small tree. It is the plant from which cocaine is derived and consequently most specimens of this plant fail to make it to the small tree category. The plant can be harvested up to three times a year, which involves the removal of young leaves, effectively keeping it neatly trimmed and compact. E.coca thrives on the slopes of warm, damp, mountainous rain forest found in the Andes, its native habitat. E. coca is cultivated elsewhere in the world but, unlike cannabis and the opium poppy which have long been plants of the world, over 90% of coca cultivation remains in the Andes and associated areas.

The link between the plant and its Andean habitat is a factor in another far more important difference between coca and the other two major narco-plants. This is the nutritional, social, cultural and economic value of the coca leaf to the people of the Andes that predates the development of the white powder known as cocaine by thousands of years. It is thought that E. coca has been cultivated for around 7000 years. Cannabis and the opium poppy have both been important parts of many cultures providing medicine, fibre, shamanic gateways and social inebriants. The coca leaf was different. It was food and it was energy.

The Andes is a challenging environment in which to live. Historically, there have only been limited local food crops (maize up to 3000m / potato above 3000m / quinoa above 4000m) and little fuel for heating. As well as poor nutrition and cold, altitude brings other issues. The Inca hub of Cuzco sits at over 3500 metres. Physical and mental activity becomes increasingly challenging at altitude.  The leaves of E.coca contain fourteen alkaloids which act physiologically on the human body. The most notable of these is cocaine but the alkaloids work together to combat fatigue, mental sluggishness, cold, thirst, altitude sickness and hunger. One hundred grammes of coca leaf contain more calcium, iron, phosphorous, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2 and Vitamin E than are found in the US recommended daily dietary intake.

Traditionally, coca leaves are placed in the mouth to form a quid, between the cheek and the gums. The actual amounts of cocaine absorbed are low and the benefits manifold.  The process has proved to be non-addictive. The alkaloid cocaine was identified in the 1860s. Refined and processed cocaine is the coca leaf reduced to a manufactured, hyper-concentrated, highly addictive white powder and stripped of its nutritional value and social, environmental and cultural context. In the past thirty years, the human lust for and antipathy to cocaine has turned E. coca from the plant of the gods into the tool of the devil.  Violence, greed and destruction have trailed outwards from the coca plantations and across continents, bringing death and corruption to individuals and to regions. War was declared on the coca leaf. By 1992, 1.5 million litres of Paraquat herbicide had been sprayed in the Upper Huallaga valley in Peru alone. In many countries outside of South America, little difference is made legally between the coca leaf and cocaine.  Erythroxylum coca, a plant of such importance and generosity to humankind, has become the enemy.