The UN Wants to Put Me in Jail for My Morning Cup of Tea

A funny thing happened in Vienna last week. A United Nations special panel on narcotics called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to make drinking a popular and traditional herbal tea a criminal offense.

The target of the International Narcotics Control Board is the tea made with coca leaves. Known here as “mate de coca” the tea can be made directly from the leaves or from commercially produced little tea bags (a la Lipton). It is served, among other places, in the U.S. Embassy in La Paz and to all arriving guests at the five-star Radisson Hotel. In fact, the U.S. State Department formally recommends the tea to visitors from the U.S. to help with the effects of high altitude.

So, why does the UN think that people who drink the tea should be prosecuted? Because it is the product of a small green leaf, coca, which through heavy chemical alteration can be morphed into cocaine. This is the story of how bureaucratic blindness results in stupid public policy.

The “Coca” in Coca-Cola

Coca has been a part of Andean culture for more than 4,000 years. It was used by Incan religious leaders as a sacrament. The small green leaf acts as a mild stimulant, and eases the effects of living and working at high altitude. It also diminishes the appetite, making the chewing of the leaves popular with miners, construction workers, farmers and others who toil long hours.

To those (including, evidently, a good number of global policy makers) who think that drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves will offer up something akin to an excursion on LSD or magic mushrooms, think again. It’s “kick” is almost unnoticeable, nothing in comparison to a “Grande” (Spanish for “big”, Starbucks for “small”, go figure) cappuccino. In this regard, as both a drinker of coca tea and an addict to afternoon caffeine, I speak with authority.

In 1860, a German chemist figured out that the coca leaf also contained a very small trace of an alkaloid that could be leached out of the plant with chemicals such as kerosene and bleach, and concentrated into a white powder, cocaine. Soon after the powder became considered a medical marvel, embraced by everyone from the Pope to Sigmund Freud to President Ulysses Grant. Coca-Cola followed, in the 1880s, as an elixir of cocaine and caffeine.

By the early 1900s policy makers in the U.S. decided that maybe mass use of cocaine wasn’t such a good idea, and approved a law banning it. Coca-Cola followed suit in 1929, keeping the coca leaf in for flavor, but taking out the cocaine.

But in the effort to sweep cocaine under the carpet, global policy makers went overboard and tossed the unaltered coca leaf in with it. In 1961, the UN developed a formal list of “narcotics” banned from international export, such as heroin and cocaine. Based on a 1950 report, long on old school racism and short on actual science, the UN added the coca leaf to the list as well.

That is roughly akin to banning corn because it might be used to make moonshine. Nevertheless, a study penned in the day when modernity was still defined by the weight of chrome car bumpers is the basis for global drug policy in 2008. Alcohol and nicotine, both far more damaging than coca tea, to be sure, are not on the list.

The “ban coca tea” recommendation from the UN last week is not, by the panel’s own admittance, based on any science or finding that drinking coca tea or chewing coca leaves is harmful. In fact, studies by the World Health Organization have found that the use of coca leaves is neither harmful or addictive. Nope, the UN panel’s action was an act of simple bureaucratic consistency. If the coca leaf is on the international narcotics list, the panel argued, then governments ought to prosecute any use of it in any form. Dumb follows stupid.

Coca in Bolivia

Don Pio was a friend of mine, a small and aging house builder who I never saw without his felt hat on his head and a wad of green coca leaves in his mouth. Boasting coca’s ability to suppress his appetite, Don Pio once told me, “Ayyy, if it weren’t for coca I’d be running to the refrigerator every half an hour and I’d never get any work done. And I’d be fat too.”

When he died of old age two years ago I looked into the grave where he had just been lowered and realized that no one had remembered to toss in a bag of green coca leaves to accompany him on his trip to the next world. We held up the filling of the grave until someone among the bereaved could come up with coca to toss in after him.

You will not find a construction site in Cochabamba where the workers do not have a wad of green leaves in their mouths. You will be hard pressed to find a farmer working in his or her field without chewing those same leaves. Coca is, in these parts of Bolivian culture, exactly what a morning cup of coffee is in the U.S., though again, with a far less narcotic kick than well-prepared caffeine.

To be sure, not all of the coca grown in Bolivia is benignly brewed into herbal tea or stashed between the cheek and gum. In the 1980s, a good deal of Bolivian coca was destined for the cocaine market, making the country a key target in the U.S. War on Drugs. Through a combination of forced eradication (including a massive trampling on Bolivian civil rights) and the move of the cocaine industry to Colombia, Bolivia’s participation in the cocaine trade was reduced to a trickle. But the war on the coca leaf continued.

So Much for Alternatives

Today, with a former coca grower, Evo Morales, in the Presidency, it is unclear how much of the green leaf grown here ends up headed for processing into narcotics, but it may still be as much as half. Morales has mandated a new approach, “coca si, cocaina no” based on two basic ideas. First, commit coca growing communities to voluntary limits on how much they grow, instead of sending in troops and U.S. advisors to burn their crops. Second, build up markets for non-narcotic coca products, from tea to toothpaste, to give the subsistence farmers who grow coca a chance to make a living in an honest way.

And that is where a UN list set in stone 47 years ago puts up a ridiculous and damaging roadblock. As long as the coca leaf, separate from cocaine, remains on the list, Bolivia can’t export coca tea to any of its potentially lucrative foreign buyers — from health food stores in California to mass markets in China. Selling Bolivian coca to foreign markets would help an economy that badly needs a boost and would create a far happier end use of those leaves than having them turned into crack a hemisphere away.

But again, bureaucratic silliness, allied by a lack of general public understanding, stands in the way. Coca is to cocaine what grapes are to wine. So, now if they come for me you’ll know why. Bottoms up.

Note: This article borrows from the chapter, “Coca: The Leaf at the Center of the War on Drugs,” of the forthcoming book Dignity and Defiance: Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (University of California Press), written by Caroline Conzelman, Coletta Youngers, Linda Farthing, Caitlin Esch, Leny Olivera, and myself. For more information on coca visit the web site of the Coca Museum in La Paz, Bolivia.

Jim Schultz writes for the Democracy Center On-line, an electronic publication of The Democracy Center, distributed on an occasional basis to more than 4,500 organizations, policy makers, journalists and others, throughout the U.S. and worldwide. People can request to be added to the distribution list by sending an e-mail note to: Read other articles by Jim, or visit Jim's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. D. R. Munro said on March 12th, 2008 at 6:23am #

    I honestly don’t see how it is an international bodies duty to regulate the harvesting of certain crops within another nation’s frontiers.

    As you said, it is part of the culture of the people.

    And even if they are turning it into cocaine . . . so what! Don’t want to use cocaine?

    Don’t buy it.

  2. JBPM said on March 12th, 2008 at 10:08am #

    I’m with you Jim. I’m actually preparing a cup of mate de coca right now. It has a wonderful aroma and a slightly bitter taste. The stimulant effect is significantly less than that of coffee, tea, or yerba mate, although it does make my tongue tingle a little from the anesthetic effects.

    It’s time the anti-(some) drug ninnies out there shut the fuck up and stopped trying to make everything under the sun either illegal or compulsory.

  3. maha said on March 12th, 2008 at 10:26am #

    True Munro, but you see these little farmers are in the way of the CIA’s drugs trade and their massive profiteering (which has recently been exposed) not enough for them the 7000% growth since 2001 in the drugs trade they’re running out of Afghanistan (and even the agricultural land cleared by the US in Iraq) to European markets. And of course the UN is the biggest pimp around. Coffee, btw, is heavily laced with chemicals and alcohol is very harmful so, of course, the big pimp will not ban these… Oh I’m sorry, was I implying the big pimp was not made up of bumbling idiots but of calculating psychopaths..?

  4. hp said on March 12th, 2008 at 11:13am #

    That being said, now lets have a little chat about all that air you been breathing.

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 12th, 2008 at 6:16pm #

    NICEly put JeebyBitMaP!