On Tobacco versus Coca
April 2, 1992
The Washington Post
Letters to the Editor
In light of the popular assumption that drug policy has something to do with protecting the public’s health, it’s a most interesting coincidence that the articles U.S., Bolivia Mount Massive Drug Raid and Dangerous Dips on pages A16 and D5, respectively appeared in the same day’s issue of the Post. Both deal with the popular use of stimulants, cocaine-containing Coca leaf in the fromer, nicotine containing Tobacco in the latter, which I’m sure many people will find informative. I do feel though that the health problems surrounding the roles now occupied by cocaine and nicotine – laike caffeine, alkaloids found in plants that serves as central nervous system (CNS) stimulants – necessitate the airing of these facts:
- the unrefined natural coca leaf like tobacco leaf is a stimulant with a several thousand year history of use
- like Tobacco Coca has been chewed – or more correctly masticated – in a custom much like Tobacco’s, being held in a quid between the check
- unlike tobacco though cocaleaf is not carcinogenic; in fact the charge has never been made even in the “anti-drug” propaganda churned out by the governments of the world and the United Nations. While Tobacco and betel nut (a widely used stimulant plant in Asia) chewing are highly correlated with oral cancer, that disease is rare in the regions of South American where Coca is “chewed”.
_ Unlike Tobacco, Coca is not poisonous. Those unlikely enough to swallow Tobacco, if not risking death. (drinking a glass of water for instance in which a cigar was soaked can kill a person) will become quite ill and possibility spit up blood; for this reason, Tobacco chewers must spit. In contrast, ingesting Coca leaves is not only benign, but medically beneficial, being used as a traditional South American herbal remedy for gastro intestinal ills.
- Indeed, Coca leaf was once widely promoted both as a medicine and as a stimulant, being widely promoted as a Tobacco substitute in the U.S., where the sale of Coca beverages- the preferred choice of Westerners- enjoyed their greatest popularity in the South East.
With today’s concerns about refined, artificially concentrated cocaine, it’s remarkable that hardly anyone cares to note that the use of that white powder was the exception prior to the effectively [prohibitive] anti Coca statutes (in the U.S.) of 1906 and 1914. Prior to prohibition, most “cocaine” use was Coca use (As nicotine and caffeine use really is Tobacco or Coffee use), such as the original (pre-1903) formula version of Coca Cola, and Coca popularizer Angelo Francois Mariani’s internationally esteemed Vin Tonique Mariani ala Coca de la Perou. Sold outside of South America throughout the half century immediately prior to the great twentieth century war on [certain] drugs, Coca was not regarded as a social or health harm, being endorsed by Popes Leo XIII and Pius X in addition to over 8,000 physicians in Europe and North America.. Nor is Coca regarded as a problem today, as guide books in South America routinely recommend it; according to the 1991 edition of Insight Guide’s South America, “scientists who have studied Coca agree that there are no dangers at all in chewing the leaf, nor is it addictive in the slightest.” Indeed, as Dr. Ronald K. Siegel’s 1989 book Intoxication states, Coca is what researchers have found to be the safest of “all the stimulants, licit and illicit… least likely to produce toxicity or dependency.”
Billions of dollars are now spent annually in dealing with today’s deplorable situation with Tobacco and cocaine3 in eth forms universally popularized by prohibition in the field of health, to say nothing of the law enforcement costs in additional tax dollars or civil liberties; yet oddly enough the policies leading to this situation are commonly viewed as moral and just. That such policies were seen as “progressive” in the early 1900s, intelligent in the mid 1900s or mercantilism by future people should be taken as a reminder of the dominance of popular conception over reason. [IOW something must be true if the majority of people believe so] Perhaps no other quote can better serve as prophecy on national and international law’s selection of which drugs are to be repressed and which are to be promoted then this one of Thomas Jefferson:
Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be keeping as our souls are now.
Do such policies really have more to do with health then politics, and should we refuse to consider the facts about what these polices have done? Refusing to ask ourselves these questions about the conceptions underlying the governments choice of our medicine and diet only guarantees an epidemic of Sean Marsee- to say nothing of the Len Bias- type of tragedies for ourselves and future generations.
Douglas A. Willinger
April 2, 1992