As the mighty cannabis plant sweeps the world in its unstoppable wave of legalization, can a New World counterpart—the power-packed coca leaf that widely prohibited as the source of cocaine—become the next miracle medicine to shake off its bad rep and step forward to heal the world? A brand-new study says hell yes!
Though the coca leaf has long-documented use in Andean culture as both a superfood and a medicine, a high-quality clinical study hasn't been done on the plant since 1975, when renowned ethnobotanist Dr. James Duke conducted nutritional analysis of coca at Harvard University.
Duke discovered that coca contains significant levels of vitamins A and C, and more calcium than any other vegetable studied by the USDA.Despite these findings, the government banned further studies of the plant. The fact thatDuke was able to get away with his study at all is a miracle, only possible through his high standing in the medical community, as the United Nations (UN) had already placed the coca plant on the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs back in 1961. This document not only called for the eradication of the coca plant, but stated that use of the coca leaf, even in traditional context, would be wiped off the face of the earth within 25 years.
For Andean nations like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, this was a direct attack on a plant that lies at the very foundation of their culture and at the heart of their Pre-Columbian history—neo-colonialism at its worst. The chewing of coca leaf is a practice that is not just widespread but nearly universal among indigenous peoples across the region, from the Himalaya-esque altiplano of Bolivia all the way to the Caribbean-fronted Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia.
In fact, recent archaeological studies show that the earliest civilization on the South American continent was founded for the sole purpose of processing coca leaf for human consumption. Later, coca played a major role in every civilization right up to the Inca Empire, which met its demise when Spanish conquistadors showed up from across the Atlantic.
Despite the UN Convention against it and the subsequent War on Drugs that directed billions of dollars toward its elimination, coca leaf remains a staple crop and daily food and medicine for people throughout its traditional heartland. In fact, Bolivia— the most heavily indigenous country of the Andean region—completely rebelled against the convention and the UN in 2011. The country rejected international law and declared coca use and cultivation a national heritage.
“We have not only legalized the chewing, but also the growing of coca in Bolivia. This is the triumph of coca leaf around the world. The coca leaf is no longer considered a narcotic, it is not poison, it’s part of our culture and it is our food," said president Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, at the time.
In the face of this outright defiance, the UN was forced to accept Bolivia’s stance on coca, despite protests from nations like Israel, Canada, the U.K. and of course the United States of America.
Other Andean countries followed Bolivia’s rebellion, including Colombia—once ground zero for the War on Drugs but now openly embracing coca as a medicinal natural alimento and integrating it into the diet as a health food. Likewise, Bolivia is opening up new land for coca production and is betting on a future in which they export the leaf around the world, even though the plant is still seen as nothing more than a deadly narcotic by most other countries on the planet.
But all that is about to change. And fast.
According to Japanese doctors Kunihiro Seko and Yoshito Nishi, authors of the newly published book Coca: Un BioBanco (Coca: A Biological Bank), the coca plant is uniquely poised to step forward as a natural medicine without equal, at a time when it is needed the most: right now.
The 167-page book is the result of an intensive 10-year study the two researchers conducted in Bolivia, with a focus on the remarkable nutritional and medicinal benefits of this much maligned plant. Unfortunately, Coca: Un BioBanco has only been published in Spanish and Japanese, but let me break down the key findings for you.
The authors spent the first part of the book explaining why the coca plant should have never been listed as a drug in the first place. Unlike the cocaine derived from it, coca leaf is not addictive at all and has never in its entire history of use caused an overdose or death of any kind. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
After confirming the amazing nutritional values that Dr. Duke found decades ago (more calcium than cow’s milk, more iron than spinach, etc.), the doctors devote the rest of the book to exploring the various incredible medical properties that coca has been shown to possess.
First of all, the authors show that coca is a powerful antioxidant, able to slow down the aging process and fight everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease. Besides high levels of chlorophyll, vitamins and minerals, coca leaves contain 14 different powerful alkaloids (cocaine being just one of these) that have profound medicinal action on the human organism—everything from anti-inflammation to cellular regeneration.
From their examination of human subjects in Bolivia that have lifelong histories of coca use, Seko and Nishi report that this magical plant was able to ward off and reverse a wide variety of illnesses, many of them common ailments that are now plaguing the globe. From turning around diabetes to reversing arterial hypertension to even alleviating dementia, coca has an extremely large list of applications as a natural medicine.
Not surprisingly, what is known as the “plant of immortality” among Andean populations is able to combat many of the conditions that are at epidemic levels among adults, and especially older people, around the world. From providing a natural energy boost that cancels out fatigue to boosting the metabolism and fighting obesity to providing neurological protection that can reverse cognitive decline, coca is a longevity tonic that rejuvenates the body at the cellular level. Also, coca leaf is a potent natural pain killer and bone and muscle strengthener that relieves everything from arthritis to muscle stiffness.
In the Andes Mountains, locals use it to work long hard hours at high altitudes with less hunger, tiredness or pain. At the end of the day, those that have used coca enjoy deeper, more resting sleep and wake refreshed and renewed. Its application in the modern world, where pain pills and pharmaceutical are often used to suppress symptoms but not treat conditions, is obvious.
Like cannabis, coca leaf is a pharmacologically complex plant that has a long history of coevolution and medicinal use by humans. Its current status as a highly controlled and repressed substance is just a testament to the depths of ignorance and authoritarianism to which Western society has descended.
But just look how medical cannabis has risen above all the propaganda waged against it and completely transcended decades of misguided government action that tried to prohibit its use, becoming known far and wide as a medicinal substance with nearly unlimited health benefits. Coca leaf is just as medicinal, just as non-toxic and just as needed right now in a world suffering from lifestyle-related conditions that can be treated naturally. Despite the long history of heavy-handed attempts to erase this green medicine from the plant, it is now time for coca leaf to have its day in the sun.
In fact, it’s inevitable.
Ocean Malandra is a widely published writer that divides his time between Northern California and South America. He is an editor of Infinite Perception: The Power of Psychedelics for Global Transformation, forthcoming from Param Media.