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:
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….
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.