Tuesday, April 04, 2006

More on coca

In a previous post I was criticizing the tone that La Razon newspaper used to comment on a study about coca by the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigaciones Científicas (CELIN). For example, La Razon mentions that the researchers tested for the presence of a substance called benzoylecgonine in the urine of three groups of coca (or coca derived products) consumers: tea drinkers, traditional consumers (they consume coca by sort of chewing it) and cocaine consumers. This substance is produced when the consumer's liver breaks down the cocaine in the blood. So, it makes sense to assume that the more benzoylecgonine one finds in urine, the more cocaine the person has consumed. In short, we would expect to find more of that substance in cocaine users than in tea drinkers. Later, La Razon quotes the researcher saying (sort of) "We cannot differentiate the three types of consumption.", indeed all three groups had similar amounts of the substance in the urine. While this finding is surprising since it invalidates our earlier assumption, I would expect that the researchers would offer reasons for this phenomenon to take place. La Razon, however, uses this result without further elaboration to imply that this means that drinking coca tea is just as bad as taking cocaine. This is of course ridiculous given the vastly different concentrations of cocaine between the two forms of consumption. Now, while coca chewing would yield higher quantities of cocaine than simply having a warm cup of coca tea, I would again expect that it is a much smaller quantity than when consuming cocaine.

Because of this doubts, I downloaded the studies from the webpage of the Centro Latinoamericano de Investigaciones Científicas and skimmed through them in the hope of finding the explanations that were missing in La Razon. Unfortunately, I could not find the study comparing the three forms of consumption that were mentioned above. The closest thing to it was a study on the relationship between drug consumption and criminality (Violencia crimen y drogas); in page 38 the researchers mention that by benzoylecgonine urine test they could not distinguish the consumers of "pasta base" from clorhidrate (two forms of the drug).

Anyway, the point of the previous post and this one is to not get carried away by the hype. Just as it is dubious that all cultivated coca is meant for traditional consumption, it is also very dubious that a moderate consumption of coca leaves is akin to consuming cocaine. A bit of skepticism is very useful.

The studies in CELIN's webpage are worth a read. They are quite objective and neutral. In my opinion it is the La Razon's article that was biased by skipping some qualifications and elaborations to the quotes. One of the many interesting bits that can be found in the articles is the description of legal coca exports to the US (article "Coca", page 70). Coca leaves first are treated by the Stephan Chemical company to extract the cocaine from it. Cocaine is then sold to pharmaceutical companies under strict control of the FDA and the DEA. The cocaine-free coca leaves are sold to several companies, among which Coca Cola. Yes folks, Coca Cola uses coca for its taste but, contrary to the urban myth, it has no cocaine. Another interesting topic in the articles is the size of the non-illicit market for coca leaves. According to the researchers' estimations, only the Chapare region produces four times the amount needed for the non-illicit national market. It is rather strange that this result has not been more widely discussed in the Bolivian press.

Finally I wanted to mention one anecdote on foreigners perceptions on coca tea. As I mentioned before, foreigners tend to think that drinking coca tea is just like consuming cocaine, the drug, but just in a fancier way. Recently the president of Slovenia visited Bolivia for Evo Morales' presidential inauguration. Of course, just as anybody who has problems with altitude, he drank some coca tea to feel better. Later, back in Slovenia, some of his political opponents tried to taint his image using this episode. For them the president shouldn't have been "using drugs". Metka kindly translated his answer to those criticisms in the comments of a previous post. Here is an excerpt:
Regarding the coca tea and foreigners’ attitude to it, I found an interesting example of the Slovenian president when he was on the official visit for the inauguration on Morales. He drank coca tea and like expected this didn’t remain unnoticed in our small conservative society. And here comes the reply of our president to such remarks (these are not his words since I had to translate it for you): “I respect old Indian traditions (my remark: Indian is not a derogatory term in our language as for some might be). Drinking coca tea is one of them. First, I had prejudice against the tea but at the 4000 m altitude everyone drinks it. It is the best medicine against altitude sickness that can be quite uncomfortable. When Bolivian ambassador in New York said that coca tea will be the first thing on the table in La Paz, I shrugged with my shoulders and thought that I won’t do it. But when we landed on 4070 metres altitude and after the starting protocol in the hotel the Bolivian minister asked me whether they can serve the tea, then it sounded completely different. We all felt altitude sickness. And this tea helps. I reassured myself. Practically everyone, locals, foreign diplomats or congress members, they all drink coca tea. And this is completely common. This is part of culture and way of living. Therefore, I agree with the Bolivian president Evo Morales that this old tradition needs to be preserved. This has nothing to do cocaine. At the inauguration speech Morales strongly announced fight against drugs and offered cooperation with the USA. But this has nothing to do with an ancient tradition of coca tea. This has to be preserved.”



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