The Superior Bush
"How Did I Go 33 Years Without Raw Coca?"
By Ashley Kennedy
Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar
February 17, 2003
Warning: This contains sarcasm, anger and self- examination, which can cause side effects of extreme indignation when mixed with puritanical denial of the truth. May cause stomach upset or vomiting in those who value ancient cultures. Do not operate heavy machinery in the dark while reading it. Does not mix with American propaganda. If blind faith in drug war persists, please consult a mental health care professional immediately.
MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN — When Al Giordano, the founder of www.narconews.com, told me to write an article on coca y cultura at the beginning of the international drug policy conference in Merida, I thought, “What? I’ve spent nearly a decade pondering marijuana policy reform, and now this guy wants me to spend my time here studying the chocolate culture?” Oh no, wait. That’s cocoa.
A coca farm in the Yungas area of Bolivia.
Photos D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
He’s talking about coca… as in cocaine. St. Philomena, preserve me, I thought. They’re both bad news. As my never-shrinking hips can attest, I’ve eaten more than my fair share of chocolate, which I guess isn’t so bad compared to the seventeen Winnebagos full of Peruvian, Bolivian and Columbian cocaine that I single-handedly consumed that one summer back in the good ole big-hair spandex Reagan & Iran-Contra days. Overall, neither the coke nor the cocoa predilection was positive for me.
Like most unapprised Americans, the only thing I was told about the coca leaf was that it was grown in far away mountains by coffee-repudiating, baby-eating, machine gun-toting pinko commie terrorist Neanderthals who didn’t speak English. Apparently, they took perverse joy in mixing strange things with the coca leaves — usually precise measures of kerosene, neoprene, morphine, tangerines, Liquid Drano, melted tires, vanilla extract and llama urine. After they danced around on them while jerking off all over pictures of Nancy Reagan, the leaves magically became bricks of satanic white powder stamped with the words ‘CIA Tested & Approved,’ and were whisked away to Miami by swarthy, homicidal, gold-bedecked men in cigarette boats. Finally, of course, it was sold at astronomical prices to herds of society-destroying idiots and stupid gringos like George W. Bush (sorry for the redundancy). Despite my misgivings about the assignment I settled in for a crash course in coca.
The first thing I learned is that cocaine was actually invented by a German and that paying to snort llama piss is stupid. The next thing I learned was that the coca leaf is a vitamin-rich staple food crop and an ancient Andean remedy for soroche, or altitude sickness. Actually, it has a wide range of positive medical properties. The Aymara and Quechoa tribes of the Andes use coca all day long with no ill effects or withdrawals. It gives them energy to work in the high altitudes, and has properties that help prevent deep thrombosis and a host of other medical problems.
The most popular method of ingestion for the pre-European native populace is chewing. Basically, the coca chewers fold a wad of leaf and bite down gently on it with their back teeth. Then they suck on it slowly (like chewing tobacco) until it’s moistened thoroughly. In some regions, after a few minutes, a pinch of lime, ash or baking soda is added to release the alkaloids in the plant. This produces a gentle elevation in mood and an increased feeling of energy and well-being. It also makes the mouth numb. To the best of my knowledge, this is where the similarity with cocaine hydrochloride ends.
Coca is also consumed as a tea — mate de coca. Although the tea is banned in the United States due to its tenuous affiliation with cocaine, the unprocessed leaf is widely enjoyed in some countries in South America much like coffee is in other regions, and is pretty much available in any grocery store. Hmmm. Déjà vu. The words ‘mate de coca’ rang a bell. I searched my mental rolodex until I remembered the righteous daughter of a prominent drug reform activist from up north. She was pretty mellow, and had stayed with me at my Hippie Cave in New Orleans once during the holidays.
She’d seemed concerned about my daily intravenous drip of hazelnut espresso, and had advised me to try her tea. She’d said it would provide a little pick-me-up without the coffee jitters or moodiness. I’d assumed “Mate de Coca” was a brand name, and had been disappointed that it didn’t taste like a cocoa latte at all. It was more like strong green tea, but I didn’t tell her that. God forbid! I hadn’t wanted to hurt her feelings by confessing that her latte sucked. After adding some milk and a couple of heaping tablespoons of Swiss Miss when she wasn’t looking, I decided that it was much better, and actually grew quite fond of it. Hell, I drank the entire box of mate in about three weeks.
Nothing bad happened. I didn’t steal from my grandmother to get more; I didn’t lose my job or my home; I didn’t support terrorists. I just drank some tea — a really good, benign tea that, unlike the more enlightened Peruvians, I couldn’t pick up at the grocery store. It struck me as being, well…unfair. Once I knew that I couldn’t freely buy this matè, I felt the avarice grow inside my soul, gnawing away at my previous indifference. I had decimated a perfectly illicit box of coca tea just because it tasted good. If only I had known that my government forbade me to possess the tea, I would have cherished it like a secret prize. I would have invited my friends over to try a sip. Not a cup, mind you; merely a sip. “Here’s something you can’t have,” I would’ve whispered. “Want some?” Their eyes would have grown wide with complicity and fascination. Their lips would’ve quivered with the smug anticipation that accompanies the knowledge that the forbidden is within reach. It is precisely this mentality that fuels the United State’s illicit drug market. People covet that which is prohibited. If we followed the Dutch Harm Reduction model, we wouldn’t be having a drug war at all. And I could have my tea.
I realized that my government had fed me a steady diet of lies about coca. They failed to mention that the coca leaf was non-addictive, life-sustaining and full of legitimate medicinal properties. Of course, my curiosity was piqued. When my curiosity is piqued, I, being an obsessive Virgo and such, do not stop investigating the subject in question until my mind has been thoroughly wrapped around it. Thanks to Al Giordano and some quirky blessings from the universe, I was graced with the presence of numerous warm, intelligent and informative South Americans in Merida when this desire for more knowledge overwhelmed me.
Four sleepless and unspeakably fascinating days later, I’d come to the realization that this task could take years and will most definitely require an extensive, meandering journey throughout South America to bask in the gentle loveliness of the coca culture as soon as possible. No, really. There’s no way of getting around it. I simply must go to the Andes posthaste and spend as much time as I can with these wonderful people and this incredible panacea of a shrub. And you should, too, because this bush is far superior to the Bush we have in the U.S.
The latter, more environmentally hazardous Bush should be weeded out of the global garden without delay. He holds the indigenous people (who depend on coca as a food staple) accountable for the actions of those who pervert the botanical sacrament to supply the Americans’ insatiable desire for forbidden intoxication. My uncle makes and covertly peddles some fierce corn whiskey, but I don’t think that the Bolivian government should use biological warfare on all of the corn fields in the US, forever depriving my son of Cool Ranch Doritos in some senseless attempt to prevent my wayward uncle’s lawlessness. Can you imagine the reaction in the US if this were to occur? Isn’t it the same basic concept? Some asshole mixes llama piss with coca leaves and all of a sudden the US government has the right to dump herbicides all over their crops? It’s more than rude; it’s slow and sanctioned genocide.
Coca farmers’ leaders Nancy Obregón of Peru and Felipe Quispe of Bolivia
“We’ve had a deep respect for coca since time immemorial,” explains Felipe Quispe, the leader of the Sole Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia. Quispe is the only Bolivian identified by name on the CIA’s website as a source of political pressure in his native country, so you know he’s doing something right. Someday, if I grow up, I’d like to make the CIA squirm, too. “We’ve had to subsist, suffer hunger, misery, oppression and exploitation with the coca leaf in our mouths,” Quispe continues. “I don’t know what the government thinks they’re going to do to us. In many places they say, ‘give us coca or give us death.’”
It seems the US government is too willing to oblige, repressing the native cultures of the Andean region in its quest for complete domination, uh, I mean complete victory in its War on Drugs. How convenient that the area is rich in natural resources including oil, gold, emeralds and uranium. How convenient that Monsanto, the heavy campaign-contributing company which makes a concentrated herbicide that’s been used to spray coca crops in Colombia with devastating environmental consequences, also makes the genetically-modified seeds that are being proposed as an alternative crop. Just what the fuck are we doing meddling around in Colombia anyway?
“When the US talks about the Drug War, they choose very carefully the places in which they want to intervene,” clarifies don Mario Renato Menendez Rodriguez, the publisher of Por Esto!, the Yucatan Peninsula’s most popular newspaper. “When they do intervention, they always look for a zone, not just a solitary country. For instance: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.”
“How can we think that the US is one of the greatest powers in the world,” asks Nancy Obregón, a leader of the indigenous tribes of Peru. “We have the power inside ourselves; it’s in our spirits.” Unfortunately, the US government only sees power in acquisition of natural resources and strategic development of military bases abroad, rather than in protecting human dignity and ensuring respect for other cultures.
So what does the US government, backed by my grudgingly-given war tax dollars, offer to the South Americans in coca’s stead besides guns, poisoned soil, military bases and forced submission to destructive, imperialistic US designs? Oh! I know. They offer a plateful of blood-soaked hypocrisy. While the DEA decries the proliferation of the coca crop in militarily-strategic Colombia, they consistently and quietly clear the bureaucratic way for the New Jersey-based Stepan Company’s importation of coca from Bolivia and Peru so that it can be processed into the secret ingredient in Coca Cola (shhh… it’s a secret), as well as pharmaceutical cocaine. Believe it; It’s the Real Thing. It’s not an urban legend; the proof is easily accessible online in the US Federal Register.
So what if Coca Cola no longer puts cocaine in their sodas? They still use the coca leaf. I never wanted llama piss and kerosene in my soda anyway, so good riddance to the cocaine. But what exactly makes it acceptable for one of the largest corporations in the US to distribute coca for herds of unwitting American sheeple to digest, but unacceptable for the people who have nurtured the plant, whose very culture and livelihoods are inextricably intertwined with coca to use it in the same, nay, in a less harmful manner?
How did I go for 33 years without raw coca? I thought I was hip and well-informed about entheogens, but apparently I was just another misguided, self-absorbed American. Coca has been the backbone of Andean culture for over 3000 years, and for good reason. It’s full of things like B-complex vitamins, protein, calcium, potassium, beta carotene, vitamins C and E, zinc and iron. It increases the oxygenation of the circulatory system, suppresses hunger, increases mental clarity, boosts energy, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and is totally vegan! It even whitens teeth. I need a coca bush of my own; I could quit buying coffee, tooth bleach and aspirin. Hell, my ass might finally shrink to a respectable size. This alone is reason enough to leave the campesinos (farmers) unmolested.
But wait! There’s more. Coca is deeply rooted in Andean spirituality as well. It is a gift to the indigenous tribes from Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). The rituals that accompany coca use are ancient and, in some places, somewhat laden with subtle, life-affirming sexual symbolism.
“Coca accompanies us from the moment we are born until the moment we die,” says Quispe. “We have to handle this as a sacred object. It is our green bible.” Coca lifts the spirit and sharpens the mind, imbuing the tribes with the subtle grace inherent in its energy. Some plants have undeniably strong spirits. The redwoods are fiercely defended from loggers because they exude an aura of peaceful fortitude. Peyote must be hunted respectfully, for it embodies both the spirits of deer and of Grandfather Fire. The surreal, moss-draped Live Oak near my home are loved and protected because they’re perpetually extending their smooth, knotted branches to the earth so that generation after generation of children can commune with them.
Coca, too, must be honored and safeguarded, because it gives hope, clarity and comfort. Like peyote, coca is a sacrament. It gives one a higher understanding of the inherent connection between man and the earth. And it’s all the indigenous people have. If I had to depend on those stands of Live Oak near my home to feed my family, to enable commerce, to strengthen my community and provide spiritual confirmation, I would lay down my life to defend the trees from those bent on their destruction. I would have no choice, because their destruction would be my own. The US government must stop making war on the coca plant and on the people who tend it.
Vive la coca!
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Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.
Apertura total: El autor desea reconocer la asistencia material, el ánimo y la guía de The Narco News Bulletin, La Escuela de Narco News de Periodismo Auténtico, su Director General Al Giordano y el resto del profesorado, y de la Fundación Tides. Narco News es copatrocinador y financiador del encuentro internacional sobre legalización de las drogas “Saliendo de las sombras: terminando con la prohibición a las drogas en el siglo XXI” en Mérida, Yucatán, y es completamente responsable por la Escuela de Periodismo Auténtico, cuya filosofía y metodología fueron empleadas en la elaboración de esta nota. La escritura, las opiniones expresadas y las conclusiones alcanzadas, si las hay, son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor
Abertura Total: O autor deseja reconhecer o material de apoio, o propósito e o guia do Boletim Narco News. a Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, o editor Al Giordano, o restante de professores e a Fundaçáo Tides. Narco News é co-patrocinador e financiador do encontro sobre a legalizaçao das drogas Saindo das Sombras: terminando com a proibiçao das drogas no século XXI em Mérida, Yucatan, e é completamente responsável pela Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, cuja filosofia e metodologia foram implantadas na elaboraçao desta reportagem. O texto, as opinioes expressadas e as conclusoes alcançadas, se houver, sao de responsabilidade do autor.
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