Nose candy Credit: Creative Commons

Q: All lucrative plants are grown in multiple locations, as far as I know. So why is coca only cultivated in South America? —Pardel Lux

Cecil responds:

Thinking about buying a hillside in Sonoma County and getting into the biz, Pardel? Legal niceties notwithstanding, it could probably be done—with a sufficiently green thumb you could grow it in a variety of climes. As to why it’s not, well, you’re looking at the usual historical contingencies: colonialism, drug panics, international conventions, world wars, yada yada.

Let’s start with the sociobotanical angle. Coca is indigenous to the Andes, where for millennia people have been cultivating a few species whose leaves they chew as a stimulant. Anthropologists have theorized that chewing coca may offset adverse effects of high-altitude life. But as an intoxicant, coca leaf packs no more punch than a strong cup of coffee. Spanish colonists in South America paid it little mind, being understandably focused on things like gold and silver.

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