July 2011

Coca and Cocaine: a Bolivian Paradox

Many Westerners assume that coca and cocaine are the same thing. This is far from the truth, in terms of chemical makeup and cultural significance.

By: Alberto Carniel / Jessica Eastwell
Projects Abroad Volunteers
Sacile – Italy / Hexham –England

Photos: Ximena Noya
Coca leaves

The question of coca production in Bolivia is one that often confuses the outsider. Many countries define coca and its potential product, cocaine, as one and the same thing. For example, in Holland, both cocaine and coca are classified as List I drugs (the most strictly prohibited) under the Opium Act, according to the International Association for Cannaboid Medicines. Despite this, coca has long been part of a traditional Andean way of life, without any proven ill effects.

This lack of distinction also extends to the United Nations, whose 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs stipulated that all coca bushes, wild or cultivated, must be destroyed, and that traditional uses of coca leaves should be abolished within twenty five years. Although the Bolivian government managed to secure an exemption for traditional coca use in the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, it was ruled that this could not overturn the 1961 convention, rendering it essentially useless. Despite this, Bolivian law permits a limited amount of coca production (each family registered in the 2005 Census is allowed to grow coca plants in an area of up to 1,600m2) for traditional or industrial uses.

Coca leaves are prized for their alkaloid content

So if even the UN is confused, what precisely is the difference between coca and cocaine? Cocaine is the name of an alkaloid, and also the most widely used drug in the world, which is found in the Eritroxilacee plants, specifically in the Eritroxilum Coca and Eritroxilum Novogranatense, small wild shrubs of about 1.5-2 meters in height, which grow in South America. In other words, cocaine is an extract of coca, but this does not mean that coca and cocaine are the same thing.

Photos: Ximena Noya
A coca leaf.


Cocaine has interested many doctors and scientists over the years. One of the first to make serious investigations was Dr. Sigmund Freud, who used the drug in an attempt to combat his depression. His death from nasal cancer has been linked to his cocaine use. This reflects the growing popularity of cocaine in Europe: in 1924, there were 24,000 recorded cocaine addicts in Paris. However, due to the health problems cocaine caused, and the growing problem of smuggling, most countries were quick to outlaw cocaine.

It is estimated that at least 16 million people in the world, and 0.4% of people aged 15-64, have used cocaine.

The 2009 Report of the European Drug Observatory says that cocaine is the most popular illegal stimulant in Europe, and its use is becoming even more widespread. More than 13 million Europeans have tried cocaine; 7.5 million of them aged 15-34. Three million people have used it in the last 12 months.

Spain, Ireland, the UK, Denmark, Italy, the USA and Australia, are the countries with the highest rates of cocaine use, estimated at between 3.1 and 5.5 % of the young population. 22% of rehabilitation patients are undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction.

However, alkaloids are not the only content of the coca leaf. A leaf of coca is in fact made up of the following:

Carbohydrates 46,2 %  found in cereals and bread
Proteins 18,9 %  found in meat
Omega3 Fatty Acids 3,3 %  found in oily fish
Calcium 1540 mg/Kg   and many other minerals
Vitamins    found in fruit and vegetables
Organic Acids 3,2 %   Malic, Citric, Oxalic, Tannic and more
Fiber   14,2 %


Bolivian law permits a limited amount of coca production for traditional or industrial uses.

Coca leaves are prized for their alkaloid content. Fourteen different types of alkaloids are found in coca leaves, among them Cocaine, Atropina, Eritroxina, Quinolina, Reserpina. Each of them has beneficial physiological properties, which would go some way to explaining coca’s prominent position in Andean cultures.

One of the most widespread uses for coca leaves is the practice known as pijchar and akullikar in Quechua. This is an ancient Andean tradition. There are no direct English translations for these words, but it is similar to chewing tobacco. The user forms a ball of coca leaves, and leaves it between their cheek and gum for hours at a time. This allows their saliva to extract the alkaloids from the coca leaf, which are absorbed into the bloodstream through the gums.

Photos: Ximena Noya
Chewing coca leaves.

Despite the many differences between them, coca and cocaine are still often equated, mostly in non-coca growing countries. One is a dangerous drug; the other is a cultural institution. It’s hard to say what will happen in the future, but it seems that coca will continue to represent a division between the countries of Latin America and Europe.

Coca leaves are prized for their alkaloid content in 1924, there were 24,000 recorded cocaine addicts in Paris. Bolivian law permits a limited amount of coca production

Bringing a New Dawn
to Burn Victims in Cochabamba

After seeing that the burn unit in the local hospital was often filled to capacity with young patients, Doctor Oscar Romero created the Mosoj Ph’unchay foundation. The doctor realized his vision in March 2007, exclusively directing his practice to those who could not afford care and needed more specialized treatment. Meaning a “new dawn” in English, Mosoj Ph’unchay hopes to bring a new opportunity to children and young adults who need more than what their economic and social means can provide.

read more ...

Archive Issues

2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016