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With the proliferation of new stimulant substances – many of them based on plants used in “traditional” cultural settings in different parts of the world – a need has arisen to monitor not just the substances themselves, but also the social contexts in which they are being used. Most national legislations take their cue from the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and thus categorise “drugs” by means of an essentially pharmacological frame of reference. This means that coca leaves, for example, are usually banned under the same provisions that apply to their principle active alkaloid, cocaine, whereas other plants, with different active ingredients, remain in licit commerce until specific measures are taken against them in particular national contexts. This has recently been the case with regard to khat, kratom, different Ephedra species, and – though it is not correctly a stimulant at all – kava-kava. It also means that stimulants containing other, purportedly “non-problematic” alkaloids such as caffeine, theobromine, capsicaine or arecoline, remain completely outside the scope of legal controls, and are treated to all intents and purposes as “non-drugs”.

There are both historical and cultural dimensions to the value-judgements which underlie the current legal situation, and the resultant categorization is not – as the international narcotics bureaucracies would like us to believe – a totally accurate guide either to the health risks associated with particular substances,  nor to the potential for their misuse. Often the lines of conflict are drawn on ethnic, gender or religious lines, with one person’s “good plant” being conceived as a “dangerous drug” by rival social interests. A good example of this is the simmering conflict over the use of khat in the Horn of Africa, the Yemen and their overseas communities. Not only is khat routinely portrayed as the fuel of Somali piracy and lawlessness in Hollywood blockbusters, but its use among Muslim men is also condemned by related womenfolk, by environmentalists concerned at the over-use of scarce water resources, and even by alcohol-consuming Christian neighbours in the countries of origin. According to your perspective, khat is either a harmless ritual lubricant or a symptom of terminal moral decline and social decomposition.

One other case, that of the coca leaf, is particularly illustrative of the cultural opposition between mainstream Western views, and those of societies once colonized by European powers. The last decades have seen a reversion of previous ethnocentric constructs which portrayed traditional coca chewing as a degenerative vice, and have opened the way to a better understanding of this plant. Formal challenges to the out-dated assumptions on which current laws are based have multiplied in the Andean states, and in Bolivia a nationalist government has successfully re-negotiated its adherence to the Single Convention, removing all the offending articles which called on governments to “phase out” the traditional use of coca. In Argentina, too, the return of democracy in the mid 1980s overturned the prohibition of coca perpetuated by previous military governments. Significantly, the underlying motive for this change was not simply a defence of indigenous customs, but rather, a recognition of a distinct regional identity – shared even by immigrant middle classes, who frequently use coca leaves as a tea and a mastigatory – in the northwestern provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman.

These, and other, examples offer precedents for what is involved in the introduction of plant stimulants into new cultural contexts. Essentially, what is at stake is a process of historical change, with societies being exposed to new patterns of consumption resulting from globalization and the expansion of world trade. This involves an ongoing, and often uncomfortable, negotiation of power and legal definition with cultural conservatives, many of whom are in principle opposed to any new drug habit. On the part of users, in the vanguard of social change, it requires the pursuit of new forms of cultural legitimacy – behaviours, rituals, belief systems – backed up by social controls which may, or may not, take the form of explicit laws. As will be argued in the next section, history shows us that informal controls arising from the experience of drug users themselves often offer a more effective discipline than a mere recourse to restrictive legislation.

Caffeine is a jealous god.

By far the most widely used plant stimulants are the different species which contain variants on the alkaloid xanthine, very close in chemical structure to the  best known of the group, caffeine, first identified in coffee. These also include tea, mate, guarana, and the closely related theobromine  present in chocolate. Since the seventeenth century, at least, they have enjoyed a long history as major world trading commodities – in the case of coffee, tea and chocolate – or as products with a large regional market outside of their localities of origin – mate and guarana. Forms of consumption have in some cases remained largely determined by pre-existing cultural practices, as with the tea pot and tea cup introduced from China, or the mate gourd taken from an indigenous Guarani context and faithfully copied by successive waves of immigration into Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, eastern Bolivia and southern Brazil. In other cases, notably chocolate, the substance was entirely reinvented by changing the nature of its composition and the way in which it was consumed – from the Aztec chocolatl (cocoa and hot chili pepper) to the European mix with milk, sugar and vanilla. Coffee and guarana provide an intermediate case: they have largely lost their original ritual settings and modes of preparation, but continue to be used essentially as beverages, which preserves the basic form of pharmacological uptake. All of these stimulants have sustained major agricultural, trading and industrial economies, and no doubt this feature – combined with a generally benign effect – explains why they have never attracted the opprobrium unleashed on other plants. Caffeine is a “jealous god” both in the sense that the economic interests it sustains do not welcome competition, and in that its different constituent species are portrayed as healthier than other plant stimulants, not just through marketing propaganda, but through an almost-unanimous cultural consensus and well-developed codes of consumption.

Indeed, what is notable in all the well-established forms of caffeine ingestion, is a rather precise titration of the dose. Caffeine lasts three or four hours in the system, so in principle it would be easy to increase dosage over time. Caffeine overdose, however, produces a number of unpleasant side-effects, both physical and mental, and thus rituals and preparations have evolved to deliver optimal benefits and minimal distress. It is surely significant that a consumer market for pure caffeine has never emerged – the substance is employed industrially in countless mixtures, usually in a pretty low concentration, and only finds an illicit use in combination with heroin (where its principle function, apart from a mild stimulant kick, is to facilitate the volatilization, or “chasing”, of smokable forms of the drug). Only in recent years have relatively high-dose caffeine drinks become popular, and even these are normally combined with antagonists such as taurine, to moderate the undesirable symptoms. It is extremely unlikely that we will ever witness a major and sustained outbreak of high-dose caffeine consumption, and patterns of combination with alcohol will probably stabilise at current levels. There is, after all, an optimal point in the euphoria to be achieved by combining caffeine and alcohol; too much of either brings on unwelcome forms of intoxication.

In short, caffeine-based stimulants are relatively self-limiting, problem-free (though there are the inevitable public-health crusaders in the USA who have called for restrictions on coffee-drinking), and well-integrated – historically and culturally – across a wide range of societies in virtually every corner of the globe. They show us that commodity capitalism does not necessarily lead to rampant corruption and abusive marketing, nor does an absence of legal controls lead to spiralling consumption and undisciplined over-indulgence, as many puritan voices of the seventeenth century feared. Caffeine-based drugs lay out a path for the effective social disciplining of any other, competing stimulant, by showing that the development of cultural norms and rituals of consumption ultimately offer a much more effective approach than condemnation or outright prohibition. It is ironic that caffeine has achieved this admirable status by becoming a “non-drug”, both at the level of public perception and in terms of international legislation.

The plants on the borders of legality.

Between the caffeine-based stimulants, on the one hand, and the coca/cocaine complex, on the other, lies a territory which was barely contemplated in the 1961 Single Convention, but which has acquired much greater visibility in the ensuing half century. Habits which were exotic and localised have begun to go global, following the paths of tourism and economic migration, and keeping pace with a generally expanding interest in psychoactive plants. In some cases, this expansion has been slow and hesitant, and largely restricted to the ethnic groups who already used such plants in their home territory. Such would be the case of the cola nut of West Africa, and the betel complex of the Far East. In the latter, used by tens of millions – from Bengal in India, through South-East Asia to Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea – a fresh betel leaf (Piper betle) is combined for flavour with shredded nuts of the Areca catechu palm, which contain the active alkaloid, arecoline. Paralleling the use of coca, this mixture is potentiated by the addition of slaked lime, which renders the taste sweeter and makes the arecoline more bio-available in the human organism. In some places, various other herbs and spices and sweets are added to the mix as well.

Many nineteenth century travellers remarked on the obvious similarities with coca leaf chewing, and indeed subjectively the effects are not that dissimilar. But a market for pure arecoline (which doesn’t have the anaesthetic properties of cocaine, and therefore attracts little medical interest) has never emerged. The drug has not been included in the United Nations schedules, and to this day the ingredients may be found in any large Western city with immigrant communities from the region of origin. Furthermore, there is almost no evidence that betel-chewing has ever penetrated non-Asian communities; even tourists returning from a holiday in Thailand, where they might well have tried the preparation (widely available in markets and next to street food stalls), show little interest in maintaining the habit at home. Like coca chewing, the experience of holding something in your mouth is culturally alien to most Westerners, but unlike coca – whose alkaloid is the main-stay of the illicit stimulant market – arecoline is not part of the register of underground stimulants. Perhaps it is awaiting en enterprising chemist who could innovate on the natural compound and produce a more noticeable effect.

That such a thing is possible has been demonstrated in the last decade by the parallel case of khat (Catha edulis), whose main active principle, beta-cathinone, was transformed into a methyl-cathinone known by various street names including methadrone and miao-miao, and which briefly (circa 2008) replaced MDMA as the drug of choice on the North European club scene. This drug depended on the similarity of its effects with various synthetic phenethylamines, and on the fact that it could be marketed legally, until put on the relevant schedules. The profusion of slightly-tweaked variants and congeners of these drugs has led to new, fast-track methods for banning new substances in various European states, and in at least one case (Ireland) to a blanket law covering any new, as-yet undiscovered drugs that mimic the effects of any of those already on the list. The implications of this for any natural plant compound found to have psychoactive properties could be quite alarming, as until the present it has been difficult to prosecute possession or supply of plants, even if they contain banned substances such as mescaline, DMT or, indeed, the cathinones. In the UK, specific legislation had to be enacted in Parliament to ban mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe (The Drugs Act of 2005), since the fact that they contained psilocybin was not enough to secure a conviction. An announced crack-down on khat in the Somali community in the United Kingdom in late 2013 has pioneered new methods of prohibition, being taken without parliamentary debate and against the express recommendations of the government’s own Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. Although announced as a measure designed to “protect a vulnerable community”, it has had rather the opposite effect, strengthening the hand of Muslim fundamentalists and destroying the only secular institution which provided an alternative social focus to the mosque. The price of khat in south London has rocketed from £5 to £30 a bunch, quality has declined even further, and an illicit drug trade has been created where none existed previously. Does this sound familiar ?

Coca, a sign of misunderstanding at the United Nations.

Half a century has passed since the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into effect, with its categorization of the coca leaf as an especially dangerous substance, without any known medical or scientific uses. Although the requirement for the Andean nations to “phase out” the traditional use of coca has recently been successfully challenged by the Plurinational State of Bolivia – in a rare political reversal for the Western cultural prejudices enshrined in the said Convention – coca remains an illicit commodity, as heavily penalized in international trade as its refined alkaloid cocaine. While formally legal under the national legislation of three states (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina), coca is still routinely seized and burned everywhere else – including in countries with a history of indigenous use, such as Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador.

With a population of habitual users verging on the ten million mark, it is perhaps surprising that the condemnation of coca has not been more forcefully questioned at the United Nations, particularly in the context of human and cultural rights challenges to the underlying, ethnocentric assumptions of the Single Convention. The case for the inclusion of the coca leaf in List 1 of this treaty has been shown, on more than one occasion, to constitute an outright scientific fraud, perpetuated at a time when local elites willingly aligned themselves with the views of the metropolitan powers. A renewed respect for the ancestral uses of this plant in its region of origin, combined with the spread of novel methods and contexts of use into new territories, have so far failed, however, to ignite the long overdue reconsideration of coca’s legal status, still anchored in the “ready extractability” of its alkaloid content. Only an understanding of the usefulness of natural coca for the new generations – principally as a mild stimulant and food supplement, but also as a properly medicinal agent in numerous gastric and nervous disorders –  can begin to change the terms of the debate, and in so doing, suggest new policy approaches to the “problems” associated with the use of its chemical derivatives.

Official initiatives to reconsider what previous generations would have called the “virtues” of the coca leaf are today largely restricted to Bolivia, where the plant has acquired the status of a potent national symbol. Elsewhere, it is to the consuming market itself that one must look to discover what is really going on, away from the recurrent propaganda (“Coca also has its fruits: Corruption, violence, terrorism.”) financed by so-called prevention and education programmes. Although collaborationist sociology has been insisting for decades that the traditional use of coca is disappearing under the impact of modernization, this appearance has largely been maintained by a focus on sampling in social sectors in relative decline – miners and peasants.  In considering urban, and particularly youthful/innovative populations, rather the opposite has actually occurred, as coca has spread into social groups who would not have used it in the past. Mention has already been made of the case of northwestern Argentina, where since the mid-20th century it has become entrenched not only among economic migrants, but in student and professional circles as well. Similar phenomena have occurred in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia, in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, and throughout Peru.

Two cases merit special attention, since they have taken place in the least likely places. In Colombia, coca cultivation by the 1960s was limited to a few small and isolated indigenous reserves, and the fledgling cocaine industry largely processed semi-refined pasta brought up from the south. The spread of coca as an illicit cash crop in the last three decades gave the plant a somewhat negative identity in political and media circles – capitalized by the La Mata que Mata (“The Bush which Kills”) propaganda campaign. Paradoxically, this drew attention to traditional uses of the plant which were very much a minority pursuit until recently, and a market for coca teas, flours and tonics sprung up in defiance of the prohibition which still weighs on the leaf in Colombia. Nasa indigenous leaders even successfully challenged the La Mata que Mata campaign, claiming it was a mark of disrespect to their culture, and the campaign had to be withdrawn from the airwaves.

Another unlikely example of the recent expansion of coca concerns the city of Lima, once capital of the colonial viceroyalty which stretched over much of South America, and a bastion of anti-coca establishment opinion. Virtually all the “scientific” evidence used to condemn coca at the World Health Organization in the 1950s, and subsequently in the UN Single Convention, was produced by the psychiatric hospital in Lima, and thus it is ironic that half a century later the Hospital de Policia should pioneer the use of coca products in geriatric care. Though cultural prejudice largely precludes traditional coca chewing in urban contexts in Peru, an expanding market has emerged for all sorts of other preparations, which can be assimilated in less visible ways. Reason is finally being given to Hipolito Unanue, the founding father of modern Peruvian medicine, who in 1797 published a booklet describing coca as “the major tonic of the vegetable kingdom”.

New methods, new markets

A characteristic feature of the introduction of stimulant plants into new cultural contexts is the inescapable push-and-pull which occurs between tradition and innovation. This is the case both with regard to actual preparations – guarana in glass-ampoule, partying doses is a far cry from the highly diluted drink used in the Amazon – as well as with the use of admixtures: the pervasive introduction of sugar in many preparations, or the substitution of traditional alkalis by bicarbonate of soda in modern-day coca chewing. Social contexts for the use of any substance also inevitably change, with the survival of the age-old Paraguayan custom of drinking mate in a circle providing an exception, all the more remarkable for its adoption by a largely European-immigrant population. Though traditionalists may decry any departure from established practice, new rituals inevitably emerge in novel contexts, and provide new identities for their hosts. Where would British society be without the addition of milk to tea ?

Often this change goes well beyond simple physical processes, and enters a properly ideological realm. Plants which have been considered sacred or magical in their cultures of origin become secular and profane – mere commodities, rather than gifts from the gods. There is, in this process, a loss of finesse and understanding accumulated over centuries, but there is also a gain, as the product enters new markets and produces entirely new forms of sensibility and social interaction. The underlying pharmacological event, in any case, remains largely the same: the short-lived boost provided by the capsicaine in hot chili peppers is indistinguishable whether it be absorbed in liquid form through the nose, as is the ritual custom among the Tukano of the upper Rio Negro, or out of a sauce bottle on a supermarket shelf. In their general usefulness, stimulants are quite naturally absorbed into human cultures right across the board, even those with taboos on alcohol or the psychedelics.

The most illustrative case of how Western society has stumbled, mis-comprehending this process, remains that of coca and cocaine, which was poised a hundred years ago to repeat the trajectory of the caffeine-based drugs, and become a household staple. The mistaken, chemical-reductionist view of the nineteenth century – which saw in cocaine, in Sigmund Freud’s words, “the true agent of the coca effect” – is largely responsible for this unfortunate turn of events, as the newly identified alkaloid went from panacea to scourge in the space of three short decades. In the process, coca leaves themselves, as well as countless semi-industrialized preparations, came under the same blanket condemnation, where they have remained to this day, despite the fact that few authorities would still maintain the view that they are seriously dangerous drugs. We are thus left, from a public health point of view, with the worst possible result: the widespread availability of illicit, concentrated and contaminated products such as crack, and an undeveloped, absurdly penalized and geographically restricted outlet for the natural forms which could take their place.

And yet, there are signs that the consuming market may operate the changes that policy makers are too scared, or ignorant, to envisage. Mention has been made of the sea-change in Colombian perceptions of the coca leaf; one particularly interesting aspect of this has been the adoption from the upper Amazon of a pulverized leaf-and-ash preparation known as mambe or ypadu, which reproduces the traditional effect of chewing whole coca leaves. More manageable for the novice user, more practical to store and carry around, powdered coca appeals to a generation who have been previously exposed to cocaine, and recognize in the herbal form a less stressful, more lasting and beneficial effect. The slow drip of alkaloids into the blood stream, together with other nutritional benefits (a high calcium content, for example) have been recognized among users as possibly one long-term answer to the problems posed by the domestication of cocaine.

In conclusion, the history of the diffusion of stimulant plants teaches us a modest lesson in inter-subjectivity, of the interaction between our species and the various members of the vegetable kingdom endowed with properties useful to our own organism. It may not be possible to reproduce traditional concepts of the “spirit” of a plant in new cultural contexts, and it may be that ritual practices, physical preparations, and the attendant value systems will inevitably change through time and distance, and across cultural boundaries. But the essential interaction, the pharmacological interface, must of necessity remain similar to all members of the human race. To this extent, the chemically-based frame of reference adopted by the UN Single Convention – of which mention was made at the beginning of this piece – is mistaken not so much in its conception, but rather in the culturally-loaded and falsely “scientific” manner in which it was applied to different plants. A political history has produced the distortions which we are now witnessing, a political future will have to find the solutions that might sort out the mess.

Sostanze stimolanti, la lezione del caffè, vai all’articolo di Salvina Rissa per la rubrica di Fuoriluogo su il Manifesto del 24 dicembre 2014.