The Secret History of Cocaine: An American Visits Bolivia's Coca Museum

There’s a curse that’s been put on white people, and it doesn’t come from Black Lives Matter. It doesn’t come from Hollywood, and it’s not rooted in multiculturalism, or mixed or gay marriages. And it has nothing to do with Islam.


It comes from an old Andean oral legend, and it gives the power of the coca plant—that lovely bush-like plant whose leaves are processed into cocaine—to the native people of the Andes.

This same legend curses the native people’s “torturer,” “the white conqueror,” “the gold seeker.”

The curse says that if this white man touches coca, “he will find in it only poison for his body and madness for his mind, for his heart is so callous as his steel and iron garment, and when the coca… attempts to soften his feelings, it will only shatter him as icy crystals...”

This is just one of the many enlightening—and perhaps, unsurprising—finds at The Coca Museum, a little exhibition tucked away on a narrow street in La Paz, Bolivia, behind an old Catholic Church and a witch’s market (where you can buy, among other charms and offerings, llama fetuses).

The Coca Museum is a tourist spot, built, according to its literature, “to prevent the use of drugs and … to satisfy young people’s curiosity without them have [sic] to try drugs.”

Walking through the exhibition is a virtual tour of coca’s—and cocaine’s—long history. Use of the plant dates back at least 4,500 years, to the people who inhabited South America long before white men showed up. The people chewed it, they offered it to their gods, and they buried it with their mummified dead. The Inca used it in initiation ceremonies. The indigenous groups considered the plant sacred, and continue to do so, giving it in spiritual offerings, chewing it after meals like others drink coffee, and using it to commune with ancestors and spirits, or to read the future.

When the Spanish conquered South America and enslaved the indigenous, the plant was at first considered demonic. The Spanish quickly realized if their slaves chewed coca, they’d have more energy for work and needed less food, so they demanded their slaves chew it, taxed it 10%, and the slaves would work for 48 hours, straight. Coca became so requisite to their work in the gold and silver mines that to the indigenous slaves, coca was easily more valuable than the metals they were being forced to mine. Even today, miners won’t go in without coca, both for their own use and to offer it to the god of the place they are mining.

Of course, by the 1800’s, coca was considered a miracle plant, known for its anesthetic properties, advancing surgeries and later famously promoted by Sigmund Freud.

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Winding through the museum, passing traditional and colonial use of the drug and into Western applications, there is an exhibit of a man watching television, snorting coke. It’s like something you’d see at the Museum of Natural History, only behind the glass is a messy living room, the mannequin white man with huge, tweaking, unblinking blue eyes, staring at a TV screen with a Marlboro cigarette ad on it. He’s dressed in a 1980’s style suit and skinny tie, except his shirt is partially un-tucked, his tie loosened. He’s sitting on the floor in front of a lazy boy chair, with a mirror of cocaine in his lap and a rolled up dollar bill in his hand. It’s a hysterical sight to see, this example of the “horror of addiction” ripped straight from an 80’s anti-drug Hollywood movie. It’s the fabricated embodiment of the legend’s curse.

Continuing on through the museum, there is an exhibit of photos from the US’s crack epidemic, and there are the photos of black men, addicted and arrested.

Today in the U.S., coca leaf and cocaine are considered Schedule II drugs, recognized for medicinal properties and still used in some forms of medical treatment—yet still very illegal.

In South America, coca is used to combat altitude sickness—a potentially life-threatening ailment that especially affects those who ascend to high altitudes rapidly. It’s sold in corner stores, restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and hotels in Peru and Bolivia, and until recently, the U.S. embassy in La Paz recommended coca tea on their website to Americans as a safe and effective way to combat altitude sickness (until a drug policy reformer relentlessly pointed it out, exposing their gross hypocrisy.)

There are a number of challenges to coca—especially its export to the US for use in things like dietary supplements (even LiveStrong.com has a section on its health benefits): The United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibits the export of coca and only recently began to allow the use of coca within Bolivia by native peoples.

Of course, there is a corporation in the United States granted a single exception: Stepan Chemical Company,  which has imported thousands of tons of coca leaf in order to extract that special flavoring known world-wide in Coca-Cola. They then sell the cocaine alkaloid for pharmaceutical use.

An exhibit at the Coca Museum includes a front-page newspaper article from 1995 declaring the U.S. had purchased 204 tons of coca leaf from Bolivia and Peru for use in Coca-Cola.

The final exhibit in the Coca Museum is a wall of photos, including one of President John F. Kennedy drinking a Coca-Cola “the symbol of the United States” and another of Fidel Castro drinking a Coca-Cola titled “Nobody is free from Coca-Cola.”

Today, coca is legal and regulated in Bolivia. President Evo Morales even has a motto,  “Coca yes, cocaine no.” People in designated parts of the country are permitted to grow a specific amount of coca, for personal use and sale. The coca leaf is meant for legitimate markets—not black market cocaine trade—much like how medical marijuana is regulated and tracked in some medical marijuana states.

On the second floor of the museum is a coca café—where you can get just about every drink with coca leaf. It’s reminiscent of the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam, and during my visit, the place was filling up with traditional hippies from Germany and the U.S.

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It seems like Bolivia is on the cutting edge of treating the coca plant more rationally and compassionately than we do in the United States. Their regulation model might even be something we look to in the future of our own drug policy.

Yet, marijuana is still very much illegal in Bolivia, and not nearly as tolerated as it is in the U.S. Many people in Bolivia consider marijuana an extremely dangerous drug, and will tell you so with a wad of coca leaf in their mouth.  

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