"Super Coca!" A New Pretext for Drug War Funding

A "scientist who advises Colombia's narcotics police" emerges from the forest and announces that he has discovered a new species… a "super" coca plant… gigantic, "towering over" normal coca bushes… with a more potent leaf, yielding more cocaine hydrochloride…

Then, as a kicker, the drug war scientist adds a rumor, citing "unofficial reports," of the existence of an "herbicide resistant coca bush."

Mind you, the Colombian government scientist doesn't have to say that these rumors are about the same plant (in fact, he does not go that far). But the gullible English-language news media already has the two rumored plants crossbred and in a feat that can only be seen as a kind of genetic engineering of news reporting.

Sound the trumpets of public deception: "Super Coca" is born!

Here is some kryptonite to throw on the rumor... The press goes nuts, of course: no drug is more dangerous than one never seen. U.S. hunts for evidence supercoca plant, cries the Washington Times. Coca growers hit back with 'super plants,' proclaims The Australian. Altered plants pose new drug war threat, declares The Guardian from London. New coca plant in Colombia is drug war threat sayeth Arizona Central. The Daily Herald in Utah headlines it an "Uber-Plant." And all these divergent, sensationalist, takes come from a single Associated Press story by Dan Molinski.

The "story" is irresistible to both opponents and proponents of the war on drugs. Opponents start into overdrive… I have received a hundred copies in my email box… Ever since last week when Jerry McDermott of The Scotsman beat AP to the rumor with a story titled New super strain of coca plant stuns antidrug officials.

Except in this story, it's not the "scientist" who "discovers" the plants, but, rather, the narco cops:

"DRUG traffickers have created a new strain of coca plant that yields up to four times more cocaine than existing plants and promises to revolutionise Colombia’s drugs industry.

"The new variety of coca, the raw material for cocaine, was found in an anti-drug operation on the Caribbean coast, on the mountainsides of the Sierra Nevada, long known as a drug-growing region.

"Samples of the plant were sent for laboratory analysis and experts then pronounced drugs traffickers had developed a new breed.

"'This is a very tall plant,' said Colonel Diego Leon Caicedo of the anti-narcotics police. 'It has a lot more leaves and a lighter colour than other varieties.'"

But - surprise, surprise - the same "scientist" pops up in this story, too:

"A toxicologist, Camilo Uribe, who studied the coca, said: 'The quality and percentage of hydrochloride from each leaf is much better, between 97 and 98 per cent. A normal plant does not get more than 25 per cent, meaning that more drugs and of a higher purity can be extracted.'"

Now the spin gets really out of control… The "new" plant costs supposedly "60 million" British pounds for narcos to develop (no cite on that figure), a feat of "genetic engineering," and this story claims outright that it is the same plant as the rumored herbicide resistant one….

"Experts estimate that the drugs traffickers spent £60 million to develop the new plant, using strains from Peru and crossbreeding them with potent Colombian varieties, as well as engaging in genetic engineering.

"The resulting plant has also been bred to resist the gliphosate chemicals developed in the US that are sprayed on drugs crops across Colombia.

"While traditional coca plants are dark green and grow to some 5ft, the new strain grows to more than 12ft.

"'What we found were not bushes but trees,' Col Caicedo said."

Aha! It's not a mere super coca bush! It's a super coca tree!

A story like this is irresistible to some drug war opponents because they can now say, "I told you so," that the herbicide spraying already done was futile (it was, of course, futile even before this super coca rumor appeared: we don't need a "new" rumor to prove that) and of course a story like this would underscore the inevitable failure of drug eradication efforts.

That said, the story smells worse than a tall, cold, morning cup of herbicide to me.

First, if "Super Coca" exists, where are the photos?

You would think that if a scientist was going to proclaim a new discovery and go tooting his horn to the press he'd provide some photo or video evidence of his newly discovered Bigfoot-of-the-botanical-world. Where are they?

Second, "coca trees" (that is, a tree that yields coca leaves) are nothing "new." Coca trees have existed in Brazil for millennia, as we translated four years ago in an interview with international drug policy expert Alain Labrousse:

"In Brazil, the coca is a traditional leaf for certain tribes and in effect it is a coca adapted to the Amazon region, that is called lebadu. It's a large tree, very high," explained Labrousse, but hardly the stuff that Super Coca could be made of: "its weakness is that it does not contain a high alkaloid content."

Labrousse spoke of that tree, back in the year 2000, in the context of efforts on the African continent to grow coca bushes or trees. "Coca is already cultivated in Camaroon for the German and Dutch chemical industries," he noted. "The same is done in Taiwan and Java. In all cases, if the coca is suddenly eradicated in Latin America, and the global consumption of cocaine stays the same, the producers will find the ways continue supplying the market."

There are a few other precisions that must be added to this "new" rumor of giant coca trees from hell in Colombia.

The third is that a higher concentration of cocaine alkaloid in coca leaf would likely kill the plant, notes ethnobotanical expert and authentic journalist Jeremy Bigwood, who has served as a consultant to the Ecuador government in its legal efforts against Colombian herbicide spraying: "I think that it would be quite difficult to increase the cocaine concentration within the leaf by very much without causing imbalances in other things - and the plant dying," noted Bigwood. "True, one can increase Cannabis' potency incredibly - but in the case of Cannabis, that is a resinous exudates (outside the cell walls) and there is not so much of an increase of resin in the leaf.  In coca you just can't get much more than a little less than 1% cocaine."

The myth of a "more potent" coca leaf, of course, rides on the widely spread drug warrior propaganda about "more potent marijuana," which has already generated decades of debate.

The fourth problem with this media myth of a "new" coca plant that is supposedly "resistant" to the glyphosate herbicide is that, even if true, it would have zero outcome on changing U.S.-imposed fumigation policies in Colombia and elsewhere. Bigwood notes: "he fumigators would just switch to using another chemical formulation… And probably one which is much more toxic…."

When the drug warrior rumor machine cranks up, it's my experience that we journalists have to be skeptical about the probability of lies that serve special interests. And one has to be especially skeptical of rumors that seem to serve the propaganda interests of both sides. Those "memes" are designed to replicate as rumors. The anti-drug warriors shout "I told you so" while the drug warriors shout "give us more money to study and then eradicate this threat." But, hey, we don't even have a photo yet of the damn super coca leaf!

And think for a moment: Nobody's really happy, not even the U.S. Congress that has sent billions of taxpayer dollars to Colombia to fumigate, with the results of "Plan Colombia," now four years old. There are murmurs in Congress. There are even signs of disappointment by the U.S. drug czar in the lack of progress for so much expense. Wouldn't this be the moment when the military and police agencies - and the mad scientists - who have been living off the tit of the U.S. taxpayer to start screaming about a new "threat" for the gullible gringos to send them money to stop it?

Super Coca? My ass. The plant already withers next to kryptonite of authentic journalistic questions.

Of course, I could be wrong… in which case, please send me a bag for sampling, and I'll add my own scurrilous rumor to the pack: Hey kids! Did you hear about the new cure for cocaine addiction? It's a new "Super Coca" leaf that is more fun to chew than to snort! I mean, why not? That speculatory statement is no less true or false than the other ones being made about this supposed Botanical Bigfoot sighting in the Amazon.

But when you're a drug warrior, already on the public dole, and wanting to keep the spigot flowing… Money really does grow on trees… Money even grows, apparently, on rumors of trees.

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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.