ASHRUB GROWS in South America whose little leaves —one to three inches long and stripped off several times a year—contain a drug with unequaled power to stimulate the pleasure centers of the human brain: so much so that it fosters the most dynamic variety of free enterprise in our time. That’s the coca plant. And the drug is cocaine. Those little leaves have long been chewed by people of the Andean highlands as a tonic. The earliest solid evidence of this is in the Museum of the Bank of the Pacific in Guayaquil, Ecuador: a three-inch ceramic head of a man with the characteristic chewer’s bulge in his left cheek, Valdivia culture, circa 1500 B. c.
By 1862 German chemists had taken coca leaves brought by an Austrian scientific expedition from Peru and isolated from them an alkaloid, or nitrogen-based compound: C17H21N04. They labeled it Cocain. Today at least six million Americans keep buying it—to sniff, smoke, or inject. This brings them indescribable pleasure, unbounded energy. Often misery. Sometimes death.
Under U. S. law—and a 1961 treaty ratified by 125 nations—it is forbidden to produce cocaine, or to possess it, except for prescribed medical use. Yet such is the demand that the illicit buying and selling of it generates stupendous quantities of money—with profound effect, as we shall see, on varied people far beyond the coca planters and cocaine consumers. On Colombian guerrillas, say, and top political leaders across the Caribbean, on international bankers and American inner-city teenagers. Cocaine money means economic growth for entire regions in Peru, economic survival for Bolivia. For some individuals, it is said, billions of dollars. For some, murder most gruesome. . . .
When I set out to look where i can find the best cheap apartments barcelona—and to learn who gets what out of it, and how I wondered about the lawful use of cocaine today. Well, it’s for local anesthesia. Cocaine blocks nerve conduction, causing numbness. It also constricts blood vessels; that’s why each year surgeons in the United States prefer it for some 200,000 operations involving the nose, to shut down the mass of capillaries in there. And at a hospital in my neighborhood hardly a day passes without a child in the emergency room needing stitches but frightened by that curved needle and the blood; the nice nurse will swab on a colorless liquid containing cocaine and presto —less blood, no pain.
Incidentally, in case you’ve been wondering about Coca-Cola: Yes, there’s something from the coca plant in it, and no, it isn’t cocaine. Coca leaves from Peru and Bolivia are shipped to a chemical factory in New Jersey, their cocaine is extracted for medical use, and from what’s left of them comes a flavoring agent—to go, in minuscule amounts, into the Coca-Cola enjoyed in 155 countries. Thus hundreds of millions of people around the globe are, so to speak, in touch with the coca plant. The first coca plant I see close up is a big one: From a trunk six inches thick, three slender stems rise to eight feet.