By Tom Blickman

Many myths surround coca. Every day press accounts around the world use the word coca in their headlines, when in fact they refer to cocaine. TNI's Drugs and Democracy Team exposes the myths and reality surrounding the coca leaf.

What is coca? Coca is a plant with a complex array of mineral nutrients, essential oils, and varied compounds with greater or lesser pharmacological effects – one of which happens to be the alkaloid cocaine, which in its concentrated, synthesized form is a stimulant with possible addictive properties.

The coca leaf has been chewed and brewed for tea traditionally for centuries among its indigenous peoples in the Andean region – and does not cause any harm and is beneficial to human health.

The traditional method of chewing coca leaf, called acullico, consists of keeping a saliva-soaked ball of coca leaves in the mouth together with an alkaline substance that assists in extracting cocaine from the leaves.

When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It helps overcome altitude sickness. Coca chewing and drinking of coca tea is carried out daily by millions of people in the Andes without problems, and is considered sacred within indigenous cultures. Coca tea is widely used, even outside the Andean Amazon region. Coca has an established use spread among all social classes, in two Northern provinces of Argentina. There is an increasing use of coca flour as a food supplement.

While the coca leaf in its natural form is a harmless and mild stimulant comparable to coffee, there is no doubt that cocaine can be extracted from the coca leaf. Without coca there would be no cocaine. The 'ready extractability' of cocaine from coca leaves is currently the major argument to justify the current illegal status of the leaf in the 1961 Single Convention. The cocaine alkaloid content in coca leaf ranges between 0,5 and 1,0 percent.

Particularly worrying is the use of smokable cocaine base paste (PBC, paco, bazuco or crack in Latin America), as distinct from free-base and crack cocaine that is produced from cocaine in the United States and Europe. Smokable cocaine base paste is harmful and highly addictive. When sharing homemade pipes, which is often part of the crack use ritual, crack users get sores on their lips and gums and are susceptible to diseases such as herpes, tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.