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Erythroxylum coca, cocaine


Consumption of cocaine, whether from chewing the plant leaves or snorting the pure alkaloid, has an eight thousand year history.



Meaning of the Name

Also given as Erythroxylon which is from the Greek ‘erythros’, ‘red’ and ‘xylon’. ‘wood’.
From the aboriginal South American language, Quechua, ‘kúka’ or q'oka, meaning 'food for workers and travellers', which became ‘coca’ in Spanish.

Common Names and Synonyms


How Poisonous, How Harmful?

The alkaloid cocaine is the main active component but a number of other alkaloids are said to be present. These include methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine.

There is no general agreement as to whether cocaine is truly addictive but the majority of experts agree that dependence can arise with regular use of large quantities. It is said that its use, in leaf form, in parts of South America is equivalent to the use of caffeine in other areas of the world.

coca plant

Erythroxylum coca

In its pure form cocaine is capable of causing death either by overdose or by prolonged use leading to cardiac problems. Figures for numbers of deaths are hard to interpret as it not always clear whether overdose usage alone is being counted and not the resulting health problems. As with many substance abuse deaths, multiple substances may be being abused making it hard to determine the true cause of death.

The greatest harm caused by cocaine has more to do with its legal status especially its production than its consumption. ‘Every dose of cocaine is [fuel] for assassinations in Colombia’, Alvaro Uribe, President of Colombia.


A nurse explained that, in 2006, her 29 year old brother died of a large dose of cocaine consumed when drunk.

In 2008, 235 death certificates issued in England and Wales mentioned cocaine overdose as at least a contributory factor in the cause of death. This is the highest rate on record. Since then, the number has fallen and was 112 in 2011. It is not possible to say how many of these also involved alcohol or other drugs. It is also not possible to know if there is any link between the extent of usage and the number of deaths where cocaine is mentioned on the death certificate.

Folklore and Facts

Research published late in 2010 shows that chewing coca leaves has a much longer history than previously thought. Archaeologists found evidence on coca use in northwestern Peru and have dated the material found to 8,000 years ago. They say that it appears that coca was restricted to the privileged rather than being widely available but, it could be, that the wealthy and influential controlled its availability and use.

The stimulant effect of cocaine is widely used in parts of South America to combat the debilitating effects of high altitude. Natives of these areas chew coca leaves but visitors are more likely to be offered coca tea.

The word "coca" comes from the Aymara word q'oka, which means "food for travellers and workers". It is said that the addiction/dependence potential of cocaine was well know by Peruvian Indian chiefs. These Indian chiefs established and maintained a system for sending messages along the spine of the Andes to control their kingdoms. These message paths stretched for thousands of isolated and rugged miles over the mountains. As well as being a stimulant, cocaine is a well-known appetite suppressant. The messengers travelling these barren paths were given coca leaves to chew to keep them going. The availability of coca was controlled so that, in order to obtain further supplies, the messengers had to reach their appointed destinations. The kings and chiefs could, therefore, be sure that their messages were arriving as quickly as possible. They were not, of course, concerned for the health of the messengers.

In the 16th century, the Spanish set up silver mines with slave labour given coca leaves to chew to keep them working, until it killed them. It was helpful, to the Spanish, to know that the miners would keep coming to the mines to get coca leaves to chew. So both the kings and the Spanish got what they wanted and didn’t care about the harm it caused to the people they gave it to. So, cocaine benefits the people who supply it and harms the people who consume it.

A further example of this principle appears in ‘Seeds of Wealth’. Henry Hobhouse, while writing about the development of tobacco during the early 20th Century, says that the German Army Command, at the start of the First World War, planned to issue every soldier with a daily ration of cocaine to help their stamina and reduce their appetite. The plan was dropped when it was realised that there was not enough cocaine available to meet the need. Instead, soldiers were given a daily ration of small cigars, mostly made with Turkish tobacco and, hence, free of supply worries.

1886, Coca-Cola was first introduced by John Pemberton, containing cocaine laced syrup and caffeine. From 1901, cocaine was no longer part of the drink. Article 26 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which is the international treaty which regulates the growing and use of coca, permits the use of coca leaves ‘for the preparation of a flavouring agent, which shall not contain any alkaloids’. This is believed to be intended to permit Coca-Cola to use coca flavouring but without the cocaine though the company refuses to disclose the formulation of its drink.

Early in 2013, Bolivia completed an involved UN process resulting in recognition that its new constitution, allowing the growing of Erythroxylum coca for non-commercial production of coca leaves for chewing in accordance with tradition, was outside the scope of the UN drug control regime. There is more about this in the blog.

More about cocaine can be found in the 'Phantastica' section of the Poison Garden website.