By Ross Eventon, David Restrepo, and David Bewley-Taylor 

Last year, the journal Molecules published the most comprehensive review to date of scientific research on Erythroxylum, the genus of the coca plant.  The report noted that more research was necessary in order to explore the properties of the plant’s alkaloids and their possible applications. However, as a preliminary finding, the authors suggested that phyto-therapeutic coca-based products could have the potential to: improve weight management and glucose regulation; be applied as a substitution therapy for people with problem stimulant use; and assist with respiratory rehabilitation, among others.

We discuss these findings, and the possible implications, in a new report for the recently founded Colombian Observatory on Organised Crime, based at the Universidad del Rosario. 

In the common imagination, we argue, coca is not associated with its long-recognised medicinal applications. The attention surrounding the illicit derivative product – cocaine – has drowned out the thousands of years of cultural heritage of the coca plant. For this reason, it is still possible to read press reports describing “cocaine cultivation in Colombia.”

This stigma is persistent, and a real obstacle to progress. From a counter-narcotics perspective, the argument for licit cultivation or industrialisation is often lightly dismissed. Rather than pursue the arduous task of regulation, why don’t coca farmers just grow mangoes instead?

However, what has been clear to indigenous communities for millennia is now gaining some recognition in the mainstream: coca is not a plant like any other. If the medical possibilities are viable, it may offer significant opportunities for value-added production.

Comparing the experience of coca with those of cannabis and opium, we find many possible lessons. In Turkey, for example, the government took advantage of a license for licit opium cultivation to provide livelihoods to thousands of farmers.  The conditions were exceptional, but such cases demonstrate the role the state can play in determining the kinds of production that takes place.

While the creation of a regulated market for cannabis has been a step forward, it has not provided the benefits that many rural farmers in Global South countries had expected. Any process of industrialisation of the coca plant should learn from such experiences.

In Colombia, the government has not provided a clear legal route for the creation of coca-based products, stifling research and innovation. Nonetheless, opium and cannabis have shown that a perfect legal infrastructure does not need to be in place for progress to be made. In fact, many cannabis-based products are still sold around the world within a legal grey zone.

The Colombian government allows foreign and national companies to produce cannabis-derived products for export, recognising and taking advantage of regulation in the United States and elsewhere. But Colombia does not extend such privileges to its own population.

In the United States, it was the government – after decades of activism by civil society – that created the potential for further research into the properties of the cannabis plant. New medical applications are clearly a means of opening the door for further research, acceptance of non-medical uses and commercialisation.

CBD oil is a case in point. Barely known a decade ago, recent years have seen CBD oil's popularity surged so much that cannabis companies marketing CBD have begun sponsoring celebrities and professional athletes.

In Bolivia and Peru, demand for coca-based products is provided entirely by local production. It seems that, in Colombia, demand for the current range of mostly-alimentary coca-based products – soft drinks, flour, tea leaves, etc – is relatively limited. Perhaps this is why there has not been the same amount of pressure to reform and explore the uses of the coca plant in the same way as in the case of cannabis. 

The government should therefore take a leading role in supporting research on coca, building on the promising discoveries made so far.  This could help escape the vicious circle of stigmatisation, legal uncertainty and stagnation of research and innovation.