Evo Morales on a Wicked Plant

Posted by on March 14, 2009 in Wicked Plants | 7 comments

In today's New York Times Evo Morales Ayma, president of Bolivia, argues in favor of legalizing the traditional use of coca leaves. He makes a gloriously horticultural argument, stating in part:

Many plants have small quantities of various chemical compounds
called alkaloids. One common alkaloid is caffeine, which is found in
more than 50 varieties of plants, from coffee to cacao, and even in the
flowers of orange and lemon trees….

Another
common alkaloid is nicotine, found in the tobacco plant…. Quinine, for example, the first
known treatment for malaria, was discovered by the Quechua Indians of
Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree.

The coca leaf also has
alkaloids; the one that concerns antidrug officials is the cocaine
alkaloid, which amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of the
leaf. But as the above examples show, that a plant, leaf or flower
contains a minimal amount of alkaloids does not make it a narcotic.

His point is that any number of plants contain compounds that may harm or heal.  In the case of the coca plant, putting a leaf between the cheek and gum the way members of Andean cultures have for centuries delivers nothing like the distilled high delivered by an extract known as cocaine.

And in fact, it is worth pointing out that coca leaves were chewed by Andean peoples long before Europeans arrived and invented cocaine.  One could argue that Europeans (and Americans) should go deal with cocaine in their own country and leave the bushes growing in the Bolivian mountains alone.

And this is fair, to a point, although it doesn't explain away Andean farmers who are growing the plant for cocaine production rather than traditional use.

Regardless.  I included quite a few illegal plants in Wicked Plants, and I have to say that the idea of outlawing a plant is as odd to me as outlawing a bird or a pebble.  It is also surprising to see the number of plants that are perfectly legal, but far more harmful than an illegal plant like cannabis or opium poppy.  (Castor bean, for example.  Hemlock.  Salvia divinorum.) How and why we outlaw plants is an artifact of history that bears little relationship to the actual threat they pose.

Now, what we do with that plant is another matter entirely, and this, I think, is Morales' point.  Leave the plant alone, and concentrate on the manufacturers, dealers, and distributors of its extract.

7 Comments

  1. I think you got it just right:
    Leave the plant alone, and concentrate on the manufacturers, dealers, and distributors of its extract.
    Seems like anyone who has it together enough to grow a plant (or correctly identify it in the wild) and wants to use it pretty much as-is, is together enough to make their own decisions about that kind of thing.
    I certainly don’t agree with compelling the rest of us to pay for their upkeep in prison for such an act, much as I don’t see the appeal of it myself.
    Also? I had no idea lemon leaves have caffeine in them. I have no clue how to make use of that fascinating bit of info, but I’m certainly going to trot it out at parties.

  2. It would be impossible to separate those who “are growing the plant for cocaine production” from those who grow for” traditional use.”
    In Peru and Bolivia, mate de coca is a healthful, everyday product, available in cases on shelves in grocery stores. On a return trip to the US, a box will slip easily past the inspectors from homeland security because they will be disarmed by the corporate-looking boxes of Lipton-style teabags.

  3. Ms Stewart,
    Comparing S. Divinorum to Hemlock and Castor beans gives the impression that it is toxic. It is not.
    Kind Regards,
    Jan.

  4. When I was in Bolivia ten years ago I was told that there are two different strains of the coca plant grown in distinct regions. The kind for chewing was grown in cooler highlands areas, the harsher kind for making cocaine was in warmer lower areas. People complained that the U.S. didn’t make a sufficient distinction between the two kinds.
    I don’t know if that’s completely true or a simplification, but I do know that Bolivians were extremely bitter about U.S. government efforts and the Bolivian government’s complicity, and that their bitterness was a big factor in Morales’ rise.
    Banning a plant is one thing, trying to ban and eradicate a sacred plant is quite another.

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