Case 1: Coca in South America

Coca, the plant producing cocaine, has always been a symbol of Andean culture. Andean culture is a collective term used to refer to the indigenous cultures of the Andes mountains especially those that came under the influence of the Inca empire

Fig. Coca leaves contain 0.5% to 1.5% cocaine

Fig. A brick of one kilo cocaine
Natives practice coca leaf chewing to alleviate hunger, cold and fatigue and is used both in traditional medicine and shamanic practices (Rospigliosi, 2004). It has also been a vital part of the religious cosmology of the Andean peoples of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, northern Argentina, and Chile from the pre-Inca period through the present. Traditional use of the coca leaf appears to have no negative consequences (Duke, 1975; Morales, 1994).

Fig. Aymara women with a pile of dried coca leaves

Today coca is a controversial plant due to uncontrolled trafficking of cocaine worldwide. Like the early rejection of coffee or tea by non-native cultures, coca is still facing bans in most countries by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic DrugsThe Convention determined that "The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated" (Article 26) and that, "Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention" (Article 49, 2.e)The 'Columbus landing on Americas' decision is of course unethical because no one has the right to control the natural habitat of a species and no can abolish an intangible cultural heritage. In 2006 Bolivian President Evo Morales defended the ancient ritual of chewing coca leaves in a meeting before the UN’s Drugs and Narcotics Commission.  

Fig. Evo Morales shows a coca leaf during his presentation before the UN courtesy Bolivian government

Cocaine was not always a problem compound. It was once a legal miracle drug, along with other narcotics, and the main commodity for major pharmaceutical companies to generate profit in early 20th century. 1g dry coca leaf roughly yields 5mg cocaine, so coca cultivation was increased in Andean region. Also coca cultivation was newly introduced in Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Taiwan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Sri Lanka at the same time. The supply multiplied year after year exceeding the demand. Much of these companies still dominate the world as pharmaceutical or chemical giants. Current generations are now a victim of cocaine abuse, because those companies made greedy decisions of maximizing profit. The fact can be compared with the unregulated overconsumption of antibiotic drugs in 21st century that will soon give rise to antibiotic resistant strains, ultimately leading the human race vulnerable to incurable diseases.   

Case 2: Pituri in Australia

Pituri,  originally Duboisia hopwoodii, is a plant containing nicotine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine; has a similar history like coca. Aborigines of central Australia chewed the leaves much like Andean people. The pituri plant had enormous economic value to the Aborigines. Pituri roads existed with extensive trade networks that extended from northern to southern desert areas, which permitted Aborigines to trade the plant. They were used as a token of friendship toward strangers, as a stimulant and social comforter to foster feelings of amity. By the 1950s, pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) use had disappeared, pushed out by Lutheran usurpation of the plant harvest (Hart, 1983). This had the effect of bringing tribal members to mission settlements. Commercial tobacco was also introduced into Australia at the time of European contact and became popular among Aborigines, despite the availability of different species of native tobacco that grew wild and was chewed as a wad. 

Fig. Duboisia hopwoodii bush courtesy Atlas of Living Australia

Fig. An aboriginal woman chewing pituri Courtesy National Library of Australia

Today the chewing of tobacco plants (Nicotiana spp.) is practiced across a broad inland area of central Australia by traditional Aboriginal groups. Collectively these plants are known by a variety of names, one common name being 'pituri'. Pituri is prepared by drying and powdering the leaves of the nicotine plant and mixing with ash from a variety of different specially selected species. It is rolled up into quids (balls) that are 6cm long and 1.5cm in diameter and then chewed.