Coca Plant with Red Drupes in Blossom

Erythroxylum Coca

The Coca Plant

Botanical Information:

Coca plants are small evergreen shrubs with reddish bark whose leaves are the sources of cocaine (Erowid). They have many small branchlets with leaves that measure 4-7 cm long and 3-4 in width. The plants have small yellowish-green flowers that grow on them and develop into red drupes (Rottman). Leaves grown in Columbia tend to be smaller and less pointy than those grown in other locations. Coca is grown from seed. When the drupes are ripe, women tend to go around and collect them. The pulp is washed away and the seeds are allowed to dry in the sun. The seeds are then placed in seed beds and germinate in approximately 24 days (Rottman). When the plants reach a height of about 30-40 cm, they are transplanted to prepared fields. This is done during the rainy season and after three years the plants may produce a small harvest of leaves. In the ensuing years, leaves are harvested three of four times per year from the plant (Rottman). Insects known as mounga burrow into the trunk of the plant and can destroy the plant and taja, a fungus, tends to grown on the leaves and branchlets of the coca plant.


Erythroxylum coca is a member order of Geraniales and the family of Erythroxylaceae. There are four genera and approximately 200 species in this family. Coca was first described as Erythroxylum by A.L. Jussieu in 1783 and was given the binomial Erythroxylum coca by Lamarck in 1786. There are two species of domesticated coca, Erythroxylum coca and Erythroxylum novogranatense. The two species have two varieties, Erythroxylum coca var. coca, E. coca var. Ipuda, E. novogranatense var. novogranatense and E. novogranatense var. truxillense (Rottman).


The coca plant first originated in the Montana zone of the eastern Andes Mountains in South America and is now grown all over the world in areas including South America, Ceylon, Taiwan, Indonesia and Formosa. Although the coca plant typically grows in these regions, it is transported globally mainly for drug purposes.

Map of Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Processing in South America


The use of the coca plant predates the conquest of the Incas, in prehistoric times. The earliest coca leaves were discovered in the Huaca Prieta settlement 2,500-1,800 BC in the northern coast of Peru. This evidence is proof that the natives of South America were using coca for a series of purposes more than 1,500 years ago (Hurtado). While all pre-Columbian cultures in the Andes have left evidence of usage, there is also evidence that coca was an important domesticated plant in the early years of the New World. It has been argued by historians that the coca plant was in fact the backbone of the Andean region and its culture. Cieza de Leon describes the importance of the plant and wrote of it, "To speak truthfully, I cannot be convinced that this is all a figment of the imagination. I am rather inclined to believe that there is, in fact, another force and spirit in the natives because there are no effects that can be attributed to imagination, which is how, with the help of a handful of coca leaves, they can walk for days without food, at times other such things and other similar works (Hurtado)." Uses of coca in the ancient times included forecasting of coming events, curing certain ailments and mediating interactions with the Andean Pantheon through offerings. Coca was also used as currency during the Colonial Period because it was considered even more valuable than silver or gold. It is interesting that the Catholic Church adamantly opposed the use of coca because the institution maintained that the plant was capable of capturing the soul of users.

Cocaine in Processed Form

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant drug. The hydrochloride, which is a powder, can be snorted or dissolved in water then injected into the body. There are three ways cocaine can be administered to the body: snorting, injecting and smoking. Snorting is the process in which the cocaine powder is inhaled through the nose and into the bloodstream. Injecting includes the use of a needle to administer the drug directly to the bloodstream. Smoking involves inhaling cocaine smoke into the lungs. The, "intensity and duration of cocaine’s effects which include increased energy, reduced fatigue and mental alertness, depend on the route of drug administration. The faster cocaine is absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the brain, the more intense the high. Injecting or smoking cocaine produces a quicker, stronger high than snorting (NIDA InfoFacts)." However, fast absorption typically means shorter duration of the high. While a high that comes from snorting cocaine often lasts between 15-30 minutes, smoking cocaine only leaves the user high for 5-10 minutes. Cocaine is a strong central nervous system stimulant and has an adverse affect
on brain function. Cocaine prevents dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure and movement, from being recycled, allowing it to build up disrupting normal communication. This excess of dopamine is responsible for cocaine’s euphoric effects. With repeated use, cocaine can cause changes in the brain’s reward system along with alterations in other systems, which can lead to addiction. With repeated use, tolerance to the cocaine high also often develops and many cocaine abusers report that they fail to achieve as much pleasure from cocaine as they did from their first exposure (NIDA InfoFacts).

Click here to see a demonstration of How Cocaine is Made

Columbian Cartels:
Pablo Escobar's war against the Colombian government

Since the 1970s, drug trafficking organizations in Colombia have become extremely sophisticated. What began as small business has emerged into an international cocaine empire. These groups have developed intricate and multifaceted ways of smuggling drugs out of the country and into many others around the world. Recently, the Colombian National Police discovered a high-tech submarine that was being used to move drugs ("The Colombian Cartels"). These trafficking organizations had the money to pay engineering experts from the United States and Russia to help design this submarine, which was going to be used to ship large quantities of cocaine to the United States.
The Medellin Cartel, which was run by the notorious Pablo Escobar, joined with a young marijuana smuggler named Chris Lehder who convinced the organization that they could ship cocaine directly to the United States in large quantities using small airplanes, rather than make numerous suitcase trips ("The Colombian Cartels"). Although the cartel became extremely successful through implementing this method, Escobar became increasingly violent toward the Colombian government when they threatened to extradite traffickers to the United States. The cartel ultimately self-destructed in reaction to the violence brought on by Escobar's war with the government.
The Medellin Cartel also lost control over the Colombian drug trade because of the competition provided by the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, Santacruz Londono, and their Cali Cartel. The Cali Cartel ran their organization as a sophisticated business. They collected their drug profits, reinvested them in legitimate businesses, and were extraordinarily successful. When cocaine use in the United States began to drop, they began shipping more and more into Europe and Asia. The leaders are thought to own huge swaths of land in Colombia, along with dozens of very successful legitimate businesses. The Cali leaders were astute businessmen and they invested heavily in political protection. Many Colombian government officials were charged with or accused of accepting bribes from the Cali Cartel. However, in the mid-1990s, most Cali leaders were arrested and sentenced to prison terms of about 10-15 years, although they were not extradited to the United States ("The Colombian Cartels").
It is believed that there are approximately 300 active drug smuggling organizations in Colombia today. Using the history of Medellin and Cali as examples, these new organizations are typically smaller and fragmented. While one group controls the jungle labs, another deals with transportation of coca base from the fields to the labs. There are well known links between the Colombian Marxists guerilla groups and the cocaine trade. It is believed that guerilla forces protect the fields and the labs in remote zones of Colombia. It is also argued that Colombian right wing paramilitary groups are in control of both fields, labs and some of the smuggling routes, which has led to nothing short of disaster for Colombian politics and society. ("The Colombian Cartels").

Medicinal Uses:

People in impoverished nations chew coca as a way to relieve hunger, although its continued use causes a severe deterioration in health. The leaves of the plant are also used as a cerebral and muscle stimulant to relieve nausea, vomiting and pains of the stomach without upsetting the digestion (Grieve). The danger of establishing an addiction to the drug, however, far outweigh the benefits it may have as a stimulant. Cocaine is considered a protoplasmic poison, having an affinity for nervous tissue because it is a powerful local anesthetic and can paralyze the sensory nervous fiber (Grieve). If coca is applied to the eye is dilates the pupil and produces a complete anesthesia. It is a general stimulant to the central nervous system and the brain, especially the motor areas. doses cause hallucinations, restlessness, tremors and convulsions (Grieve). Those acquiring the Cocaine habit or addiction typically suffer from emaciation, loss of memory, sleeplessness and delusions.Mate_de_coca_Peru.jpg

Other Cultural Uses:

The coca plant plays a key role in reciprocating manners in the Andean region. There is no exchange that does not include coca. For instance, when a man and a woman get married, they build a house and plant a coca field, which grows with them and their family. When their children grow up and bring spouses to help with the field, the home will have reached the pinnacle of production (Hurtado). Coca is also used in South American cultures to protect individuals and is important for fortune tellers because without this magical plant, they cannot see into the future accurately. The plant is also used for religious purposes, to make offerings to the gods. Coca is the most critical product to Andean people because it is an element of survival and represents what is sacred to them, their culture, traditions, and their endurance against abuse and exploitation (Hurtado).


"The Colombian Cartels." Public Broadcasting Service. 2010. Web. 5 December 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/business/inside/colombian.html>.

Erowid. "Erythroxylum coca." The Vaults of Erowid. 2010. Web. 4 December 2010. <http://www.erowid.org/plants/coca/coca.shtml>.

Grieve, M. "Coca, Bolivian." n.p. 1995. Web. 4 December 2010. <http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/c/cocobo78.html>.

Hurtado, Jorge. "History of the Coca Plant." Cocaine the Legend. Bolivia: La Paz Bolivia, 1995. Web. 3 December 2010.

"NIDA InfoFacts: Cocaine." National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2010. Web. 5 December 2010. <http://drugabuse.gov/infofacts/cocaine.html>.

Rottman, April. "Erythroxylum: The Coca Plant." Southern Illinois University Herbarium. 1997. Web. 4 December 2010. <http://www.ethnoleaflets.com/leaflets/coca.htm>.

Image References:

Pablo Escobar picture <http://www.semana.com/photos/generales/ImgArticulo_T1_58261_2008123_114606.jpg>

Map of Coca Plant <http://www.usm.maine.edu/~mstein/coca1.jpg>

Coca Plant picture <http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/uploads/RTEmagicC_Erythroxylum_coca.jpg.jpg>

Cocaine picture <http://www.justice.gov/dea/images_cocaine.html>

Cup of tea <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/29/Mate_de_coca_Peru.jpg>