The Case for Legalizing Coca

By Justin Samuels on May 25, 2017

The failed war on drugs has turned nations around the world into police states and ravaged much of Latin America, devastated inner cities and caused the United States to lead the world in the number of people incarcerated. Recently, a number of states and countries legalized cannabis both for medical and recreational use, and the move to do so in other states and countries continues. Another natural plant that many say should be legalized is coca, which contains the alkaloid cocaine. 

Coca comes from a shrub native to the Andean and Western regions of South America. Traditionally, people in the region chewed the leaves to stay alert or made products like mate de coca (coca leaf tea). Coca is a stimulant, much like caffeine, and in the leaf, tea or food additive form, it is at a much lower dose that powdered cocaine or crack. In its non-chemically processed form, it keeps one alert, and depending on how one takes it, there’s a buzz. It also has health benefits as a treatment for certain kinds of sickness. The violence associated with cocaine in Central and South America comes from U.S.-driven pressure on Latin American governments such as Colombia to fight groups involved in coca production. This has lead to many deaths and considerable corruption, and it’s tragic because coca is a part of the heritage of Andean nations. 

Coca should be legalized. Can it be harmful? No doubt. If someone overdoses on cocaine, yes, they can die, but this should be put in context. A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 1995 found that the "use of the coca leaf did not lead to noticeable damage to mental or physical health, that the positive health effects of coca leaf chewing might be transferable from traditional settings to other countries and cultures." Likewise, obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., behind tobacco use, both of which are perfectly legal. In 2013, more than 100,000 people died as a result of prescription drug use, yet prosecutors rarely imprison doctors for overprescribing extremely addictive opiates. 

The point: The U.S. government is clearly not interested in prohibiting everything that can cause death if abused, though it did prohibit the 1995 report for several years by threatening to pull WHO funding. 

Sugars and fats, especially when combined together, are addictive, yet there is not going to be a ban on these substances or tobacco. Instead, governments strive to reduce food and tobacco abuse through education and medical alternatives for those wishing to live healthier lives. Nutritionists, psychologists, doctors and physical trainers work with obese people suffering from food addiction in their transition to a healthy weight and lifestyle. For smokers, professional help might involve support groups, counseling for underlying mental health problems or even smoking cessation medication. These resources are also available to alcoholics, another legal drug. 

Since it’s clear incarceration isn’t the answer, money saved by not incarcerating people could be used to treat those with addiction disorders. With that said, Forbes reported on a study in 2013 that found cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos and other junk food. Marginalization is the cause of the majority of mental health issues that lead to the issues associated with drug violence among the poor and minorities worldwide.

What would be the benefit of coca legalization? By legalizing coca cultivation, vast resources spent by governments killing or imprisoning people could be saved and applied to other resources. This could help demilitarize nations and stop the damage done to families with loved ones killed or imprisoned for selling, growing and distributing coca and its products. Money would be saved by ending the war on drugs, and the vast coca market could be legalized and regulated. Tax revenues coming in would help governments around the world, especially in the nations where coca is produced. 

Bolivia has gone the furthest in coca legalization. South America's poorest nation, who elected a coca farmer as president, increased legal coca cultivation and exports. The government makes money off legal cultivation, and they aren’t fighting a civil war. Colombia, meanwhile, has a mixed approach to dealing with its leftist militias and right-wing paramilitaries. Medical cannabis is legal, and personal cannabis is legal up to 22 grams, and the government is now giving out licenses to growers. Colombia is now considering greater legalization of coca cultivation for non-cocaine uses at a point when coca cultivation for cocaine is at an all-time high. 

Currently the people who get licenses to grow coca legally in Colombia are the indigenous population. This is in part because coca use predated the Spanish, and this is seen as part of traditional Colombian culture and as a form of reparation for historical abuse and genocide of natives. Likewise, some frame the war on drugs as a war on Colombia’s black population along its Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. Large protests have blocked attempts to eradicate coca, as the Colombian government has not come through with proper assistance for farmers who stop growing coca. It is the most lucrative crop that can be grown in the region, and it does not have to compete with subsidized food products, so coca cultivation will remain a huge part of the regional GDP. 

To assist the peace process in Colombia and elsewhere, it is imperative to broaden the legalization of coca production, and stop the international drug war that disproportionately affects dark-skinned people throughout the Americas. At the same time, clinical researchers should explore modern medical uses for coca products, and the U.S. government should allow for their use even if it might hurt their Big Pharma donations. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

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