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The Politics of Cocaine


Every morning at 5:30 I went for a 4 kilometer run. I got up this early for two reasons: the town downriver (Piñipampa) stopped burning tires to kindle their roof tile ovens—fueled by forced child labor—and I also had to teach English and Philosophy classes uptown by 7:45 a.m.

I ran for 20 minutes. I considered it a successful jaunt because I lived at two miles in altitude, in the seat of Peru’s Andes. To be honest, this jog was virtually impossible without a great deal of help from the coca leaf. I put a handful of the leaves into my mouth along with the yipfta (Quechua for “quinoa straw ash”) in order to catalyze the plant’s crystalline tropane alkaloid: cocaine. I chewed as I stretched, and I extracted the mild cocaine while masticating the ball of leaves between my tongue, gums and cheeks. The sensation resembled that of dentist’s anesthetic gel. I started to feel invigorated, to feel more energized, yet without a trace of thirst or too much pain in my joints; my asthma all but disappeared.

The coca leaf was a wonderful addition to my morning routine. I ran by my neighbors who also enjoyed the coca leaf’s psychoactive alkaloid. I smiled at my neighbors, already in their cornfields and greet those on their way to the fields. I even ran by a handful of my students who, awake since 4 a.m., were tending their corn crops before the school day. In a very urbane sense, we collectively doped ourselves at the start of each day.

We Unitedstatesians are a cocaine-loving people, too. But we love ‘coke’ in very different way. We snort it, rub it on our gums, and there’s no shortage of creativity as to how we usher it into our system. I do not think anyone could successfully deny our love affair with the thing. All the skeptic needs to do is look at the statistics vis-à-vis our consumption and cocaine-related crimes and deaths. In fact, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health done a few years ago, nearly 1.5 million Americans met the criteria for abusing cocaine or being dependent on it. Another report gathers that, in the same year, nearly 25% of all emergency room visits involved with drug abuse was cocaine-related. But the statistics that evince our connection become little more than white noise when we examine the little coca leaf in its greater context.

Given its output of the narcotic, it is evident that Peru does a lot to sustain US Americans in their naughty habit. But these facts do nothing to alter the simpler truth that there must to be a market—such as we provide—in order for such enormous quantities of this drug to be so lucratively attractive. Peru, the country where I lived a year ago, was the world’s largest coca leaf producer in the mid-1990s. Thanks to the production of two hundred and some metric tons of potential blow, Peru is more or less the world’s second largest producer of cocaine today. Furthermore, the market that we provide for cocaine to exist is firmly predicated on our spending. Our support of the drug trade is invariably formidable. In fact, were we not so good at providing Latin American countries like Peru with such lucrative drug markets, peasant farming at such latitudes might concern itself much less with growing these illicit cash crops for drug manufacture. In fact, the coca plant would cease to be a cash crop! Were Peruvians left to their own devices, I am positive that the demand for production in coca-farming would plummet whilst falling back to the harmless, small scale of consumption I witnessed every morning on my runs.

As I watched Peruvians struggle every day to comply with a work week that resembled something inhumane in contrast to the popular precedent for what US domestic work standards ought to be, the coca cash crop made a lot of sense. When the world’s only super industrialized country has such a voracious appetite for something, who would forfeit the chance to capitalize on that opportunity? But even this foregoing speculation is specious. Luckily, this question leads us to the root cause of the issue: If people in Peru truly enjoyed an authentic species of privilege, they would not be forced into growing crops for the sake of furnishing America with its narcotic decadence.

America has strung the carrot from the stick and waved it in front of countries like Peru for decades, insisting that the Yankee genus of development is an actually attainable, worthwhile pursuit. Countries like Peru need only fasten their belt a little bit more, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and abandon the malevolent coca crop cultivation to realize their dreams. Without shame, America pretends that cocaine production and coca cash crops are both regressive steps along the path to the development which Peru may dare to achieve. All in the name of development, a single plant is then wholesale and morally demonized, all because Mommy and Daddy cannot understand why their 11th grader enjoys a “gummy” every now and again under the tree at lunch. And to combat Peru’s amoral and reproachable behavior, the US military operations go unchecked when violating national sovereignty after national sovereignty, terrorizing an impoverished people who would otherwise have nothing to do with growing such unnatural amounts of the coca plant.

To think, all this chicanery for a farcical war on drugs and for the oppression of a people a continent away from the deep, inescapable pockets of demand.

If money does make the world go ’round, I have to believe that the crucifixion of a sacred plant in the Andes should not. With respect to what my neighbors did in the wee small hours of the morning with coca-chewing, it was far less nefarious than what little Johnny and Susie do for fun when their parents are absent. America is the society with a tragic problem, especially when the problem continues to eat away at the centuries old cultures of Andean countries like Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, terrorizing its peoples with boots on the ground and poison in the air. While some among us faithfully dust each nostril daily, we nevertheless quixotically seek to maintain our puritanical self-image on a national level. Perhaps for the sake of posterity alone, America would wage an endless and absolutely futile war on a plant that my neighbors wanted to chew at first light. Indeed, we have gone to war because America chooses not to admit that if we don’t want cocaine to exist, and if we don’t want our kids to do it, we should stop buying it and cease creating a demand for it.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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