Magical, Mystical and Medicinal

Coca – Freud’s Favourite

Erythroxylum coca Lam.

Its use among the Indians is very common: when they walk out of necessity and for their happiness when they are at home. (...) when they have to walk especially in areas where there is no food, or there is lack of water, because the use of this pellets takes away their hunger and thirst, and they say they receive substance, as if they were eating. (...) If they want to get drunk they mixed coca leaves with tobacco and suck everything together, then they walk as if they were out of their minds, like a drunk person, and it is something that gives them great satisfaction.

Monardes, N. 1580. Primera y segvnda y tercera partes dela Historia Medicinal: delas cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que siruen en Medicina

Erythroxylum is a genus of about 230 tropical species, of which about 190 are found in the Neotropics and only two (Erythroxylum coca Lam. and E. novogranatense (Morris) Hieron.) are cultivated.

Coca was part of Andean culture long before the arrival of the Europeans, and is still widely used today for medicinal, social and ritual purposes. Considered a sacred plant for its stimulating, anaesthetic and healing properties, it plays an important role in ritual and religious ceremonies, as well as mitigating harsh living conditions at high altitudes. There is evidence that the leaves have been consumed for more than 8000 years and numerous remains have been found in archaeological sites. The dried leaves, when chewed with a small amount of lime or ash, release active compounds that stimulate the nervous system reducing the sensation of hunger, thirst, fatigue and pain. The infusion of the leaves has been used traditionally to treat gastrointestinal disorders as well as to alleviate pain and altitude sickness.

After the European conquest, Spanish authorities encouraged the consumption of coca leaves by slave labour after discovering that the effect was an increase in their productivity. Brought back to Europe by the early explorers, coca did not initially receive much attention. After the alkaloid cocaine was isolated for the first time in 1840, the extract become enormously popular and began to be prescribed medically. Sigmund Freud was one of its great advocates, recommending it to treat depression, alcoholism and opium addiction. At the end of the 19th century, its narcotic properties were discovered and it began to be used as a local anaesthetic, particularly for eye operations. It was also added to tonic drinks - along with the cola nut, coca was one of the original ingredients of Coca-Cola.

Over the time, the negative effects of the use of the highly addictive cocaine become apparent. Cocaine causes significant psychological alterations such as depression, paranoia, aggressiveness and hallucinations. Today it’s use is restricted but synthetic derivatives of cocaine are still used as a local anaesthetic.