Coca and Cocaine

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Coca, a shrub native to the hot, humid valleys of the eastern slopes of the Andes, has been cultivated by the Indians of South America for thousands of years. Today the plant is legal in Peru and Bolivia, where millions of Indians still chew coca leaves every day as a stimulant and medicine. (Coca, by the way, is not related to cocoa.)

Coca contains fourteen drugs, cocaine being the most important. The other drugs are present in smaller amounts and seem to modify the stimulating effect of the cocaine. In addition, coca leaves contain many vitamins and minerals that are probably important in the diets of Indians who use them. There are several varieties of coca: some taste like green tea, some like wintergreen. Coca users put dried leaves in the mouth and work them into a large wad. They suck on this wad for thirty minutes or so, swallowing the juices, after which they spit out the residue. To get an effect from coca, a tiny amount of some alkali, such as lime (the powdered mineral) or ashes, must be added to the wad of leaves.

After a few minutes of chewing coca, the mouth and tongue become numb; then people begin to experience the usual effects

Indian women in Peru sorting coca leaves. (Timothy Plowman)

of stimulants. Unlike coffee, coca soothes the stomach and doesn't produce jitteriness. It may also be more powerful than caffeine in producing a good mood.

In the late 1800s coca became very popular in Europe and America in the form of tonics and wines. Coca-Cola began as one of these early preparations. At the same time, scientists isolated cocaine from the leaves and made it available to doctors in the form of a pure white powder. As the first local anesthetic, cocaine revolutionized surgery, especially eye operations, which had always been terribly painful and difficult. In the 1880s doctors began to prescribe cocaine for all sorts of medical problems, including dependence on opiates and alcohol. It soon became apparent that this kind of treatment was not a good idea, because many patients suffered ill effects from cocaine, and many became dependent on it. So, in the early 1900s, laws were passed against the widespread use of coca and cocaine. The Coca-Cola Company took cocaine out of its drink (it still contains a drug-free extract of the leaves as a flavor). Other coca products swiftly disappeared from the shelves of drugstores. Safer local anesthetics were invented in laboratories, and today doctors use cocaine only for certain operations in the eye, nose, throat, and mouth.

Since then, a huge black market has developed to supply cocaine to the many people who like the feeling it gives. All illegal cocaine comes from leaves grown and processed in South America. It is always cut (diluted) with various substances before reaching consumers here. Most people snort cocaine; that is, they snuff the powder up their noses. Used in this way, the stimulant effects come on very fast, are very intense, and are very short-lived. Some people shoot cocaine, that is, inject it intravenously,* which gives even faster, more intense, and shorter effects; and some people smoke a special form of cocaine called freebase in water pipes. Crack cocaine is a relatively new, smokable form of the drug marketed as small pellets. It first appeared in the mid-1980s, and crack use quickly reached epidemic proportions in cities throughout America. Smoking puts cocaine into the bloodstream even faster than intravenous injection and gives similar effects — very intense and very brief. Few people take cocaine by mouth, even though it works and is actually much safer that way.

Coca and cocaine are very different, and the difference shows how it is easier to form good relationships with natural drugs than with isolated and refined ones.

Coca leaves contain low concentrations of cocaine (usually only 0.S percent), in combination with other drugs that modify its

Colombian Indian coca chcwcr. He adds powdered lime to the wad of leaves in his mouth by moistening a stick, dipping it in the lime container in his other hand, then rubbing the white powder on the leaves. (Michael R. Aldrich)

*The health problems of intravenous drug use arc discussed in Chapter 12.

When cocaine hydrochloride was first isolated in the late 1880s it revolutionized surgery and was widely prescribed for a time. Now, in the 1980s, its medical application is limited, but its popularity as a recreational drug is growing by leaps and bounds. On the black market, this ounce of pure, pharmaceutical cocaine would be worth upwards of $2000. (leremy Bigwood)

When cocaine hydrochloride was first isolated in the late 1880s it revolutionized surgery and was widely prescribed for a time. Now, in the 1980s, its medical application is limited, but its popularity as a recreational drug is growing by leaps and bounds. On the black market, this ounce of pure, pharmaceutical cocaine would be worth upwards of $2000. (leremy Bigwood)

effects in a good way, and with valuable nutrients. The cocaine is highly diluted by inactive leaf material. What's more, getting stimulation from coca takes work: you have to chew a mouthful of leaves for half an hour. In this natural form, small amounts of cocaine enter the bloodstream slowly through the mouth and stomach.

Relatively pure street cocaine may contain 60 percent of the drug, which, when it is put directly into the nose, lungs, or veins, enters the bloodstream all at once. The stimulation, or "rush," is therefore very intense, but it lasts only a short time, usually disappearing within fifteen minutes to a half-hour. Then the user may crash, feeling tired, sluggish, unhappy. Because cocaine can make people feel so good for so short a time and not so good immediately thereafter, users tend to go on using it, trying to get back the good feeling. Many people can't leave this drug alone if they have it, even though all they get from it after a while are the unpleasant effects characteristic of all stimulants used in excess: anxiety, insomnia, and general feelings of discomfort. Besides, snorting too much powder cocaine leads to irritation of the nose, while smoking crack may be bad for the lungs and is even more likely to lead to overuse and a stubborn habit.

Indians in South America, on the other hand, rarely have any problems with coca leaf. They can take it or leave it, continue to get good effects from it over time, and use the stimulation to help them work or socialize. They also use it as a medicine for a variety of illnesses, especially digestive ones. Among South American Indians there is little abuse of coca leaf.

Use and abuse of cocaine have skyrocketed in recent years, provoking much public alarm. Sensational news stories about crack, with graphic descriptions of inner-city crack houses and impaired "crack babies" born to addicted mothers, led directly to escalations of the current war on drugs. For drug warriors crack is the new devil drug, so dangerous as to justify the most repressive measures.

In their enthusiasm to fight cocaine, these crusaders often exaggerate its dangers, at least its physical toxicity. Both powder and crack cocaine can increase the workload of the heart and cause irregular heartbeats, but deaths from cocaine are rare, and the body has a great capacity to metabolize and eliminate the drug from the system. Actually, it is the psychological and social dangers of cocaine that should be emphasized in drug education.

First of all, the addictiveness of this stimulant is great. (Smoking crack is as addictive as smoking cigarettes.) Cocaine addiction almost always interferes with social and economic functioning, since addicts often alienate families and friends, lose jobs, and spend phenomenal amounts of money on their habits ($15,000 a year and more). They become paranoid, isolated, and depressed, unable to stop thinking about their next dose. Treatment of this addictive behavior is difficult, time-consuming, and also costly.

Occasional snorting of powder cocaine in social situations is probably not harmful for most people, but one should be aware that the possibility of using this drug to excess is very real, and that excessive cocaine use can have devastating effects on one's life. It is even more difficult to limit intake of crack cocaine to levels compatible with good physical and emotional health.

It seems a shame that the laws and policies on drugs in our society have led to the disappearance of coca along with knowledge of its uses and benefits. At the same time, by outlawing something that many people want, they have made it profitable to smuggle the concentrated drug, and so have encouraged the growth of a vast black market in cocaine.

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  • Bertha
    What other drugs are in coca leaves?
    21 days ago

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