Saturday, October 18, 2014

And if Coca Leaves Had Come Across First?

A European man smokes a
tobacco pipe around 1595.
(Drawing by Anthony Chute,
via Wikipedia)
During his voyages of discovery to the Americas, Christopher Columbus's men discovered a novel plant, whose leaves produced a pleasant effect when placed in a pipe and smoked. Soon after, some "were unable to cease using it," reported Spanish Bishop Las Casas. And only a few decades later, tobacco was developing a booming market across Europe.

Chocolate's story is similar: Discovered by the Europeans about 1520, by the early 1600s chocolate drinks sweetened with sugar were becoming popular across Europe.
Workers in the Dutch colony of Java stamp
coca leaves in the early 1900s.
(Image: Wikipedia)

However, a third New World plant with addictive properties caught on more slowly. Carried to Europe in the 1500s, coca and its derivatives didn't become popular in the Old World and United States until the 1800s, when products such as coca wine and cocaine-containing medicines were marketed.

Chocolate drinking, portrayed
by by Philippe Sylvestre
Dufour, 1685.
(Image from Wikipedia)
Today, of course, chocolate and tobacco are both deeply embedded in Western culture, despite the tobacco leaf's severe health effects. Many governments are campaigning against tobacco use, with irregular results. But because of the leaf's addictiveness, cultural role and huge economic power, none will ever completely eliminate it.

All of which makes me wonder: What if cocaine had been exported and popularized first? Was it only a matter of geographic chance that chocolate and tobacco became Western cultural icons, while coca and cocaine become demonized? After all, even coca leaves, which produce no more than a mild narcotic effect when chewed, are on the United Nations' list of banned substances, right along with heroin.

Sure, cocaine's effects on human behavior can be much more intense than that of nicotine and caffeine, the active ingredients in tobacco and chocolate, respectively. However, "research suggests that nicotine is as addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol," according to the United States Centers for Disease Control. And, it'd be easy to argue that tobacco can do you more harm than cocaine can.

Perhaps if columbus had carried coca leaves home in 1505, but tobacco leaves hadn't made it across the ocean until the 1600s, today we'd be sipping coca wine with supper, while tobacco cigarettes would be back-alley contraband. Perhaps.
Coca wine, from

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Douglas Andrew Willinger said...

"...cocaine's effects on human behavior can be much more intense than that of nicotine and caffeine,"

Sure, when one thinks of "cocaine" as a refined concentrated white powder, and caffeine and nicotine simply as ingredients used indirectly through the use of their parent substances as Coffee and Tea.

Nicotine is actually the strongest of the three, caffeine the weakest, and cocaine the only one that is not physically addictive.

Both cocaine and nicotine are powerfully re-inforcing.

Even caffeine though is toxic in concentrated form.

Douglas Andrew Willinger said...

Coca leaves were known to Iberian explorers during the 1500s.

The main problem with Coca leaves is their volatility. In other words their aromatic properties easily and relatively quickly evaporate , and it is these components which matter significantly in their properties that give human consumers a more useful, balanced stimulant effect. Hence Coca leaves were more prone to going stale on the long journeys back to Europe, than Tobacco leaves.

As Coca leaves were best known to European explorers in Peru, and due to the topography, Coca leaves had an arduous journey down the mountains and then upon long boat rides around South America.

There was no Panama canal available to use to shorten such trips until 1914- which was also the year of the U.S. Harrison "Narcotics" Act effectively banning Coca in the U.S.A.