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Cuckoo for Coca: The Misunderstood Plant

One of the leading plants for sale, distribution, and growth in the South American region around the base of the Andes is the coca plant. Native to the low forest areas of the neotropics, the coca plant has had a long history with the people of Peru. Having been used since the pre-Inca era, the plant has been incorporated into the lives of many who live in this area for thousands of years.

The relevance of coca in Peru is for medicinal, religious, and other daily-use practices. The plant is however notorious for containing a chemical compound which is used as the base for the creation of the drugs crack and cocaine. With ever rising awareness of drug use and trade since the early 1970s and a growing incarceration rate and criminal charges for these drugs, more first world countries like America are trying to figure out ways of getting rid of the crop; regardless of the effect it might have on the natives of Peru who use this plant as a common tool.

Figure 1. Picture shows a strain of Erythroxylum novogranatense, one of four species of coca plants used in both everyday use and drug production.

Coca plants have been growing in the neotropics since the reign of the Incan empire. Paintings, art, and even mummified remains depict the use of the coca plant as a type of chew, placed in the mouth and grinded with the teeth. The use of the coca plant has been shown to alleviate elevation sickness, a common occurrence around the Andes, and has also proven to have many nutritional benefits. Sometimes brewed as a tea, the plant is drank as an anesthetic, commonly used to relieve pain in patients recovering from rough procedures (Rubio 2015). The plant, being the base of the stimulant cocaine, does have some stimulating factors in addition to healing factors. Often hikers will chew on the leaves to get a boost of energy. These practices are still in use by natives of the Andes region today, and are becoming one of the most rapidly growing industries in Peru, both legal and illegal.

Figure 2. Picture shows native Peruvian putting coca leaves into one’s mouth to chew.

The drug problem with coca has been going on for decades now. Other exporters of the drug like Colombia and Bolivia have become spotlights for international drug trade, making Peru the perfect spot for both the growth and distribution of the drug through illegal drug trade without too much attention.

The fine line in creating policy and legislation regarding this issue is the fine line between its natural and ill mannered use. While leaving it for the natives seems appropriate, illegal trade from natives will still occur, and even small farms can ban together to supply huge companies plenty of the plant for illegal use. This plant is being considered a drug just because of its potential, when in reality it only composes about 1% of the drugs actual chemicals (Mosher, 2012). In fact, since its addition to the Schedule I list of substances by the UN Single Convention in 1961, those who don’t see coca as purely cocaine have been trying to get it removed from said list. The current status of keeping this plant out of the hands of drug lords is unfortunately also keeping it out of the hands of natives, and this is the issue that is most prevalent regarding the consideration of coca restrictions (Davalos, 2011).

There are currently strict regulations on the amount of area used to grow coca.  One wrong turn in the Northwestern Amazon could lead one walking onto the outskirts of an illegal coca plantation (Pesaresi 2008).  Many countries, namely the U.S., have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to finding these illicit farms, and have taken aggressive initiatives in trying to eliminate them. In the 1980s, the United States made an agreement with Colombia that they would lower their debt if the U.S. was allowed to aerially spray both fungicides and herbicides over coca fields (Blickman 2014).

This strategy of course is not working, due to several factors.  First of all, the spraying is not controlled enough; in addition to killing the coca plants, the fumigation kills many people, animals, and other unintended plants, and causes birth defects within local tribes.  Glyphosate, now a known carcinogenic pesticide/herbicide, was used frequently to control the coca problem.  This, along with powerful fungicides wreaked havoc on the local environment of South America by killing countless genera of flora, rather than coca plants alone.  It only made coca-farming peasants angrier, and now less potent herbicides/fungicides still exacerbate the problem to this day (Wyss 2015).

Figure 3. Picture of workers on a coca plantation. These fields can become very large, and many of these plantations can ship to one main client for mass production of the drug cocaine.

Countries like Bolivia aren’t necessarily as harsh as Colombia, however.  When the former coca grower Evo Morales became president of the country, he allowed 0.16 hectares of land to be used for traditional use.  These small plots or catos are, however, being closely monitored for ties with the cocaine trade (Blickman 2014).

As radical or progressive as these policies may sound, they still haven’t caused a significant decrease in global drug use.  The amount of impoverished people in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are too high for the majority of farmers to turn to anything else in order to survive.

It seems that the monetary potential of the coca leaf is unable to be ignored – farmers in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia know the profit that can come out of using their coca plantations for cocaine production.  Even illegally growing large plantations and distributing coca to others to produce the drug still produces higher earnings (although still modest compared to the drug distributors) than most other legal cash crop farming in the area. Illegal mobs and guerrilla groups have been known to both produce and distribute cocaine, dominating the illegal drug trade of any country which they occupy.  

In Colombia, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) was a Communist guerrilla faction that arose in 1964 from a group of farmers who believed they were being treated unfairly by the government (Casey 2017).  From their beginning until 2016, they monopolized the illegal drug-trade within Colombia.  With their recent disbandment, Colombia grows worried of how the illegal drug trade might metamorphose into something worse among multiple smaller armed groups (Blickman 2014).

Figure 4. The eradication of a coca plantation near San Miguel, Colombia. This crop was most likely hidden within the rainforest.

With cocaine standing as such a huge problem in South America, Colombia has enacted an initiative to combat their seemingly ever-growing dilemma.  The government has been attempting to swap out coca for coffee.  Despite coffee yielding a lower profit per acre, the government is promising to make coffee farming, among other products like panela brown sugar, a viable choice to sustain families (Wyss 2015).  

In order to combat these flawed policies, we propose that distribution of the true health risks of cocaine be distributed as effectively as possible, especially in northwestern South America.  If we can first establish a clear distinction between coca leaves for recreational/traditional use and cocaine for abuse we can diminish the fear that the drug promotes.  Second, if we can be more forgiving of cocaine users (and even more forgiving of crack users), we can provide necessary care systems for when people become highly addicted.  We could even introduce marijuana as a weaning system to combat withdrawal symptoms during rehabilitation.


Blickman, T. Coca leaf: Myths and Reality. (2014, August 5). Retrieved May 3, 2017, from tni website:

Casey, N. (2017, March 9). With Rebels Gone, Colombia Jumps Into the Pot Industry. The New York Times, p. A1.

Cristina Rubio, N., Hastedt, M., Gonzalez, J., & Pragst, F. (n.d). Possibilities for discrimination between chewing of coca leaves and abuse of cocaine by hair analysis including hygrine, cuscohygrine, cinnamoylcocaine and cocaine metabolite/cocaine ratios. International Journal Of  Legal Medicine, 129(1), 69-84. Jan 2015.

Cocaine: A Short History. (2016). Retrieved April 25, 2017, from

Davalos, L. M., Bejarano, A. C., Hall, M. A., Correa, H. L., Corthals, A., & Espejo, O. J. (n.d). Forests and Drugs: Coca-Driven Deforestation in Tropical Biodiversity Hotspots. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(4), 1219-1227.

Johnson, E. L., Zhang, D., & Emche, S. D. (n.d). Inter- and intra-specific variation among five Erythroxylum taxa assessed by AFLP. Annals Of Botany (London), 95(4), 601-608.

Mosher, Dave (n.d.) Secrets of Natural Cocaine Production Revealed. National Geographic News. June 13th, 2012

Pesaresi, M. (2008). Textural analysis of coca plantations using remotely sensed data with resolution of 1 metre. International Journal Of Remote Sensing, 29(23), 6985-7002.

Plowman, Timothy, (n.d.) Botanical Perspectives on Coca. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 103-115.

Wyss, J. (2015, June 7). Coffee, not coca: Colombia doubles down on solutions to win drug war. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from Miami Herald website:

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