Pubdate: Sun, 13 Jan 2013
Source: New York Daily News (NY)
Copyright: 2013 Daily News, L.P.
Author: Ricardo Cortes
Note: Cortes is the author of "A Secret History of Coffee, Coca &
Cola" and the illustrator of "Go the F--- to Sleep." Page: 25


Chewing On The Plant That Helps Flavor Coke Is Banned In South

Last week, the United Nations voted on an appeal by Bolivia to amend
the international treaty that prohibits the chewing of coca leaf.

Bolivia won a partial victory - a tiny sign that the world may be ever
so slowly coming to its senses on the insanely harsh treatment of this
humble, mostly harmless plant and the people, mostly South American
natives, who enjoy it in its raw form.

Coca chewing has been a ritual in the Andes for thousands of years,
and it is practiced by millions of people throughout the continent
today. Tourists to the highlands are offered coca tea to alleviate
altitude sickness, and the plant's mild stimulant properties have been
known around the globe for centuries.

In March 2009, Bolivian President Evo Morales stood before the UN and
discussed the history of coca use for purposes social, spiritual,
medicinal and nutritional. Morales, a former coca farmer himself, then
put a leaf in his mouth, sparking applause from the assembly.

The controversial stimulant in the plant, of course, is the alkaloid
cocaine, present in trace amounts to the coca chewer, giving users a
boost of energy akin to a cup of coffee (which contains caffeine,
another alkaloid that is potent in concentrated form).

When refined, the coca plant provides raw material for the production
of the illicit drug cocaine, and in an effort to limit cultivation of
the plant, even traditional usage has been banned by a worldwide decree.

That's the problem: Efforts to kill the cocaine trade have haphazardly
and heartlessly cracked down on anyone and everyone who produces or
enjoys the unadulterated leaf. A 1961 agreement called the Single
Convention on Narcotic Drugs, still in effect around the world, orders
people to stop chewing the leaves and mandates the destruction of all
wild coca bushes.

This fact might merely be unfortunate and overzealous - but, because
of a wrinkle in United States history, it is also hugely

You see, the Single Convention was adopted after years of negotiations
led in great part by Harry J. Anslinger, long-time commissioner of the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Best known today for his fervent campaign
against marijuana, Anslinger had a strange relationship with the coca
plant: spearheading its prohibition while simultaneously ensuring
access to the leaf for a single, powerful consumer, The Coca-Cola Company.

For decades leading up to the signing of the Single Convention,
Anslinger worked closely with Coca-Cola to procure a decocainized coca
extract for the "secret formula" of the beverage. Cooperating with The
Coca-Cola Company and Maywood executives, Anslinger was also their
central ally in negotiations leading to the completion of the Single
Convention agreement.

Indeed, as it was finally adopted, in addition to banning traditional
use of coca leaves, the treaty contains a provision that allows use of
the plant for the special purposes of The Coca-Cola Company.

Since 1903, Peruvian coca has made its way to a manufacturing plant in
Maywood, New Jersey, at the behest of the beverage giant. Over the
past century, thousands of tons of leaf have shipped to this discreet
facility, where cocaine is removed from the plant and sold separately
for medicinal purposes (in 1959, the site was acquired by Stepan
Company, which maintains the business today).

This is the world we have created: We impose tough restrictions on
farming and use of natural coca leaf by the people of South America,
while simultaneously affording the privilege of using an altered
version of the plant to an American corporation making billions of
dollars off the very same leaf.

Of course, there is a distinction to be made between the chewing of
coca leaf in South America and the recreational use of cocaine in the
United States. But one can be vigorously against cocaine the narcotic
- - and the criminal enterprises it helps fuel - and still understand
the pernicious effects of the blunt instrument that is the Single
Convention. It is time to address this long-standing error. Last
week's UN vote marked a small victory: While Bolivia was denied its
continued efforts to amend the treaty, it was allowed to withdraw from
the agreement and rejoin with an explicit reservation against the coca

That minimal, largely symbolic step is not enough. The U.S. should
drop its continued challenges to Bolivia's desire to cultivate a leaf
so closely linked with the cultural identity of its people. That, or
we should reconsider the global legal loophole that allows a huge
American beverage company to use a plant that is categorically denied
to its own native caretakers. 
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