I confess: I was a coca leaf user.
That said, I should also note that I’ve never consumed any so-called recreational drugs, nor do I consume alcohol or tobacco.
But the coca leaf — well, that’s different.
Most Americans know coca as the plant from which cocaine is derived. And I — along with millions of others — know it as a great natural remedy, either chewed in leaf form or consumed as tea.
My experience with coca leaf occurred several years ago in Peru after I took the overnight bus from Arequipa to Puno, on Lake Titicaca, ascending over 5,000 feet in a few hours.
The bus ride itself was bad — they showed the "SNL"-spinoff movie "Superstar" with Spanish subtitles, which did little to make me proud of my national origin.
But what I felt when I arrived at my destination was even worse: a unique combination of malaise and nausea, accompanied by a complete lack of appetite.
I could not recall feeling so intensely awful in my life. Locals soon informed me that I had altitude sickness (warnings about which I had ignored) and urged me to drink coca-leaf tea. So I did.
The relief wasn’t instant, but within a matter of hours I felt fine, well enough to proceed to other Andean adventures, including a two-and-a-half day trek up into the thin air of Machu Picchu, the legendary lost city of the Inca.
During my high-altitude travels, the coca leaf was everywhere, in tea or being chewed.
Consumed in leaf form, coca has many beneficial effects: It not only relieves altitude sickness, it’s also good for general aches and pains and minor digestive disorders. Like green tea, its benefits seem endless, its drawbacks, none.
Or rather, the drawbacks would be none, except that cocaine, a small amount of which is contained in the leaf, is a drug upon which the U.S. and United Nations have declared war. That means an integral part of the lives of countless indigenous Andean people is under fire from fixated foreigners.
Most recently, the U.N. told South American governments that they should criminalize the traditional use of the coca leaf. Peru’s lawmakers, however, heroically rejected that demand, and dozens of legislators chewed coca leaves on the floor of the Peruvian Congress in protest.
Congresswoman Hilaria Supa told reporters, "The coca leaf has existed for thousands and thousands of years. It’s part of our agriculture, our food and our medicine. It’s sacred. The United Nations doesn’t know our culture. It doesn’t understand our values."
The U.N.’s outrageous demand is a relatively minor insult compared with our government’s aggressive anti-coca campaign over the past several decades directed against its own citizens.
Indeed, before Congress passed the Harrison Act in 1914, anyone in the United States was free to use pretty much any drug of their choice without a prescription, much the way it still is in Latin America today.
These are relatively peaceful days for the millions of native coca-leaf users in Peru, especially now that the worst days of guerrilla warfare hopefully are behind them. But they are peaceful days that the United States and U.N. seek to destroy, to the extent their drug war hasn’t already.
The days before the Harrison Act were peaceful in America, too, before government took control over everyone’s life, when you were mostly free to do anything you wanted to as long as you were peaceful.
Yet we in the U.S. now bear the brunt of it all, being forced to not only live in fear of the criminals on the street, but in fear of the criminals who operate our government.
Why would Americans want to force our own failed experiments in drug prohibition on other nations? Maybe it’s because many among us believe we’re better than "those people."
Or maybe it’s just the old story: Misery loves company.