The History and Development of the Coca Leaf


The historical background of coca leaf has not always been clear. However, some scholars claim that it has already been used as early as 8,000 years ago. The plant has continued to be used to date, even though its use has remained controversial. It is a native plant among the Andean Indians who continue to defend its use. Coca is rich in alkaloids, as determined from its chemical properties. Coca tea and Coca-Cola are the prominent products of this plant. Some economies advocate for the increased growth of coca leaf, while others oppose its cultivation. 

There have been many historical and developmental changes that have taken place since the information regarding coca plant has become available. Earlier on, people used the plant for medical, nutritional and religious purposes. However, different researches and ideas regarding the plant appeared. This fact has contributed to the evolution of the plant’s use by various societies until the stage where people have discovered cocaine, which has been recognized as a harmful narcotic. 


History and Development of the Coca Leaf


Coca is a complex plant, which has a range of essential oils, nutrients and a variety of compounds with various pharmacological effects. Alkaloid cocaine is a popular product of the plant, which is achieved through additives. Although the plant has been planted in several regions of the world such as Nigeria, Taiwan and Indonesia, the investment in the South American region has been enormous. 

Throughout the world, it is known for its rich chemical composition, because it has psychoactive alkaloids, commonly referred to as cocaine. In coca leaves the composition of alkaloids relatively low. However, the process of deriving cocaine from the leaves is chemical acid-base extraction with the help of particular solvents. Over many years, coca has been used in manufacturing of Coca-Cola, a global soft beverage. The process of manufacturing entails that the beverage is free of cocaine from 1929 onwards, even though Coca-Cola has begun manufacturing in 1885. Thus, it is imperative to consider the history and development of the coca leaf.

General Description and History of the Coca Plant

There are over a hundred identified coca plants. Only two out of them are prominent and known to be edible. The plant is known for its resistance to both drought and diseases. For instance, the plant is able to grow well in the Andes mountain regions at the highs of between 4,500 and 6,000 feet. Earliest cultivation and the use of the coca plant dates back to the 700 B.C. However, there were discoveries in Ecuador that recorded the use of the substance by human beings more than 5,000 years ago (Johnson, Zhang, & Emche, 2005). Buhler Alfred hypothesized that a tribe known as Arhuaco located in the Negro River region was the first group to discover the medical uses of the coca leaves (Torchetti, 2011). The tribe later spread the information to the neighboring groups. Several key references by Buhler have been cited by other authors, though some records have been refuted. From the mid-15th century to the early 16th century, Vespucci Amerigo was identified as the first European ever to provide a documentation of the first use of the coca leaf by human beings (Toyne, 2011). Because of the lack of references, place and year of publication, these facts have been questioned. They have been regarded as lacking authenticity and are referred to as educated guesses by many historians (Torchetti, 2011). 

In the 16th century, coca was introduced in Europe. However, it became popular in the 19th century after Doctor Paolo Mantegazza published a paper recognizing the stimulating effect of the coca leaves (Inciardi, 1992). The result was the invention of coca wine, which was a form of pure cocaine, and the development of other products using the coca leaf. Some of these products were used for medical purposes, and during the same period the original version of Coca-Cola was developed. Among the products that were manufactured using the coca plant or coca leaves, some have been banned in some economies in the 20th century after doctors have identified the addictive nature of the product made from coca leaves (Johnson, 1995). According to Inciardi (1992), it was a University of Gottingen scholar, Albert Niemann, who began to refer to the addictive alkaloid in coca leaf as cocaine in 1859 (Inciardi, 1992). 

Java led the exporting of coca leaf into Europe at the beginning of the 20th century (Johnson, 1995). Many economies have unsuccessfully tried to grow coca leaf. Although some countries have banned the growth of coca leaf, others, like Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia, have continued to grow the plant and justify its use in reference to the traditional usage of coca leaves along with its modern use in manufacturing of products such as toothpaste and tea (Johnson et al., 2005).

Historical Value of Coca as Food and Medicine

Coca leaf has been used and continues to be an input in the preparation of several products across the world. Among the Andean community, it was used to prepare cookies, coca tea, and granola bars, among others. Coca tea and Coca-Cola are among the initial industrial products prepared from the coca leaf. Presently, some governments continue to lobby for the increased production of coca leaf, while others oppose its use (Toyne, 2011).

Erythroxylon coca has been in use for more than 4,000 years both as a stimulant and as a medicine in such countries as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru (Rivera, Aufderheide, Cartmell, Torres, & Lanqsjoen, 2005). In the 16th century, the European explorers noted the existence of this commodity and its common usage in the society. In South America, the inhabitants would chew leaves, since they were believed to assist in a number of ways. For example, they would help to suppress appetite, assist with the digestion, and elevate one’s mood (Torchetti, 2011). The North Western part of South America was explored by the American drug companies so that they could try and seek whether the product would be a viable source of medicine. Although considered a medical product at first, 30 years after its introduction in the field of medicine, it was later detected as extremely addictive and destructive (Rivera et al., 2005). 

There were several instances of cocaine abuse in the late 1970s, when a smoking method of the product was identified. Cocaine re-appeared in the 1970s and was recognized as an expensive drug. It was, however, later believed to have serious side effects as well as to be both dangerous and addictive. This happened after the sudden death of a famous college basketball player, Bias Lens, in June, 1986 (Toyne, 2011). 

Cocaine was for some time known for its anesthetizing qualities. Therefore, people would use its pills for easing sinus pains. Even in the current world, it is considered a prominent product that can be used as a local anesthetic. It is used as an aesthetic product in several medical procedures. The stimulant nature of the product has made it applicable in the manufacturing of Coca-Cola. However, later on, in the early 20th century, this component was abandoned and a decocainized extract of coca became one of the ingredients necessary for Coca-Cola’s flavor (Toyne, 2011). 

Coca as a Tool for Spiritual Protection

Coca plant is famous for performing offerings. The offerings were important in times of calamities such as flooding, drought, hail and frost. It has been, therefore, considered an important and sacred plant with special magical powers by the Andean society for a long period of time. This might be one of the reasons why the efforts of stamping out the plant as an illegal substance might have caused conflict between the world bodies involved in fighting illegal drugs and the users or producers of the coca plants (Johnson et al., 2005). 

Traditional Meaning and Development of Coca as a Symbol of Ethnic Identity

Cocaine, as one of the products of coca plant, has been known for many years as an inhalant that people would use as a stimulant. It is one of the finest discoveries of coca plant. Other methods that are used in its consumption entail injection and swallowing (Torchetti, 2011).  

The Europeans had already known about the medical value of coca since the time of the conquest. However, they came to appreciate the product fully in the 19th century (Rivera et al., 2005). Coca did not at first become a global commodity, such as tobacco. It was only seen as a precious commodity by the Andeans.  

Throughout the period, coca has not yet lost its significance from the time of its discovery. Traditional benefits of the plant are still upheld in areas such as North Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. It is particularly common among the Quechea and Aymara native dwellers who usually work in mining, live in the cities or carry out farming activities (Dillehay et al., 2010). Research carried out by Mamani and Carter in Bolivia indicates that 89% of the female and 92% of the male population still use coca leaves. Among these, 68% and 82%, respectively, are habitual chewers (Rivera et al., 2005). 

History of Substance Abuse and Political Pressure from International and Local Agencies

According to Rivera et al. (2005), the research of the history of coca dates back around 3000 years ago whereby it has been used by the mummies. However, another school of thought led by Dillehay et al., (2010) postulates that coca leaves have been chewed about 8000 years ago. More so, there is archeological evidence, which suggest that during the Moche era, which is around the 6th-century, coca leaves have already been chewed. The trend has continued during the Inca era, and those who chewed coca leaves displayed some unique physical characteristics that included bulging checks. It is imperative to acknowledge that before the introduction of chewing of coca leaves to Incas, they were chewed in the eastern region of Andes. During that period, it was believed to have a divine background (Dillehay et al., 2010). Thus, its cultivation was controlled by the government with only the nobility being allowed to grow the plant, as defined by the Topa Inca legal framework of the Inca. However, as the power of the leaders of the empire declined, coca plant became more widespread. As time passed, Phillip II, the King of Spain, acknowledged that the plant played an integral role in the traditional lives of the Andean Indians and thus required the missionaries to terminate its religious usage. Thus, the cultivation of coca was encouraged by the Spaniards among the Andean Indians (Johnson, 1995). 

The Development of an International System of Control

In 1569, the council of the Catholic Church identified the plant to have satanic powers and started a mission towards eradicating it. This was the start of the Narco-Inquisition (Johnson et al., 2005). However, the numbers of coca crop plantations did not reduce. As a matter of fact, they increased considerably due to the social importance that was attached on them. This social importance of the plant has continued to be manifested among the native population in the Andean region. The Spaniards used the plant by distributing the leaves. In return, the Indians worked more, which led to the increased economic importance of the leaves, especially in the silver mining region of Greater Potosi. The Spanish King, Philip II, declared coca a product that was vital for the welfare of the natives of Andean. The Catholic Church in turn lifted the ban on the production of the plant and imposed a 10% tax on coca (Dion & Russler, 2008). Most of the times, in the Andean society the natives could only work in the mines as far as their share of coca was assured. Sometimes they could boycott work in mines once the coca was rebuffed. 

The UN convention on narcotic drugs in the 1961 has identified coca alongside other drugs, such as heroin, as harmful narcotics that require immediate attention (Inciardi, 1992). This convention had several objectives. First, it aimed to curb the manufacturing of cocaine and to phase out coca chewing. The operation that was aimed to completely finish the production of coca leaf was estimated to be effective for 25 years until December 1989 (Johnson et al., 2005).  

After the investigation in Bolivia and Peru in the 1950, a report by the ECOSOC commission of enquiry regarding the coca leaf indicated that the usage of this leaf led to negative effects among its users (Inciardi, 1992). This fact, therefore, facilitated the UN community to come up with the regulation against these harmful effects. Experts from WHO, however, criticized the report and were solely inclined to believe that the use of coca, especially for chewing, was a normal activity (Dion & Russler, 2008). Therefore, this fact managed to strengthen the positions of producers and the users of the product within many regions.

In 1994, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a body mandated by the United Nations to monitor and implement the control of narcotics and harmful drugs, indicated that the use of coca was illegal, though it was still considered legal by several South American regions. According to the INCB, both the 1961 and the 1988 conventions identified this product illegal (Dion & Russler, 2008). 

Expansion in the Marketing of Coca Leaf

At one point in time, the value of the coca leaves was used for economic purposes. They were used for barter values. During the colonial period, the prices of coca leaves were used instead of gold and silver. Poma de Ayala asserted that the Spanish conquerors have already started using coca leaves as a form of payment (Johnson et al., 2005). This practice led to the paradoxical use of the plant in the society. 

The introduction of perishable leaves into the global economy was also very unfavorable.  The plant gained importance when the principle active ingredient was possible to be extracted from the leaves. It thus has gained international importance. The first marketing strategy was the introduction of the commodity as a medical remedy. The expansion in the sale of the commodity was witnessed in the early 18th century. However, it declined in the early 19th century, when it was determined that the commodity caused dependence among the users (Johnson et al., 2005).  

The decline in the use of the coca plant was seen again in the early 20th century between 1930s and 1960s. One of the most significant stages in the development of the coca plant happened in the 1980s (Johnson et al., 2005). There was an upsurge in the price for the commodity, since there was the production of powdered cocaine, which was believed to have faster effect. This change would consequently increase the demand for the new commodity. Crack cocaine and freebase were again refined and one could achieve the needed result quicker and at a lower price. Moreover, this new concept tended to appeal to a wider audience. Although these drugs are now considered the most prominent, highly addictive and destructive types, they still have retained their popularity. In addition, they continue to prevail in the contemporary market (Torchetti, 2011). 

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Suppressing the Scientific Research on the Benefits of Coca

Traditionally, the coca leaf was used for many purposes, including medicinal, nutritional, and religious. It was used to enable a person to overcome thirst, fatigue, and hunger. Prior to the invention of strong analgesic and anesthetics, it was used for the healing of sores, rheumatism, and headaches (Musto, 1998). Present-day scholars have proven that the coca leaf can treat some ailments due to its chemical composition (Weil, 1981). With reference to nutritional purposes, it was used as a form of tea, because it was rich in vitamins, fibers, proteins, and minerals. It was a principle feature of religious cosmology among the Andean society living in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, northern Argentina, and Peru from the pre-Inca era to the present days. It was used as an offering to earth (Pachamama), the sun (Inti), and mountains (apus) (Torchetti, 2011). 

Coca leaf in its natural form can be compared to ordinary stimulants such as coffee. In this state, it is considered a harmless mild stimulant. Cocaine is usually extracted from the coca plant. Actually, cocaine is easily extracted from the coca leaves. Cocaine alkaloid content is determined to be about 0.5 to 1 % of the total content (Johnson, 1995). Concerns regarding the use of cocaine have started in the early 20th century, especially between the 1910s and 1920s. Many people, especially the youth, have started to become addicted to the drug. Consequently, the drug would frequently lead to moral ruins (Schildt & Siegfried, 2006). This issue was more pronounced among the young people. There were laws that restricted the use of drug, especially in the early 20th century (Musto, 1998). As a result, there was a sharp decline in the use of the substance from the 1920s to the 1960s (Schildt & Siegfried, 2006).  The ‘smokable’ cocaine was the worst identified drug that could result in immense behavioral changes in the populace that used it. In particular, cocaine base paste was the worst identified smoking substance compared to other kinds of coca products. It was considered to be highly addictive as well as harmful (Johnson, 1995). 


The history of the coca leaf has been anonymous over a long period. Many changes have taken place since the information regarding coca plant has become available. Earlier on, people used the plant for medical, nutritional and religious purposes. However, different researches and ideas regarding the plant have appeared during the years. This trend has contributed to the evolution in the use of the plant until the stage where people have discovered cocaine, which has been recognized as a harmful drug. 

Different researchers have discovered diverse information regarding the history of coca. However, there is archeological evidence, which traces the popularity of the plant, especially in the South America. Most people in these regions held the coca plant with high regard, since it was used for solving various issues. For instance, it was used as a source of food, medicine and for religious purposes. Most often people would chew the leaves. Later, there were various debates regarding the harm that the plant brought to the users. However, there was stiff opposition from the societies that used them, which consequently led to the further development of the use of the plant for research. As a result, powder and other processed products were introduced. Further development of the use of this plant has led to the discovery of cocaine, which is referred to as one of the most harmful drugs in the modern society. Unfortunately, substantial debates and frequent deaths have not deterred the continuous production of such coca products as cocaine.

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