Coca originated in the Andes Mountains of South America and was revered by pre-Inca peoples as early as 500 BC. Leaves from the coca bush were used in religious ceremonies and are still used to combat debilitating effects of high altitudes. Cocaine alkaloid (a chemical compound found in coca bush leaves that is used in medicines, drugs, or as a poison)—or simply cocaine—was first isolated and purified in the mid-1800's. It became commonly used in the late 1800s, but by the early 1900s, people realized its harmful effects and it became regulated as a drug.
Prior to 1906, cocaine alkaloids were not separated from the flavoring used in making some cola-flavored soft drinks. Coca flavorings are still used in making today's cola-flavored soft drinks, but the cocaine alkaloids are removed and discarded.
Coca has been grown in numerous countries around the world, but it is grown in quantity only in a few South American countries. It has been grown in many other countries with tropical climates—even in Florida. Some of these countries supplied coca leaves for legitimate export and some grew coca only in botanical gardens—that is, gardens which are often open to the public and where exotic, rare, or scientifically interesting plants are grown. Some also tried growing coca for illegally making the illegal drug cocaine, too. For various reasons, however, by the mid 1900s, coca growing was virtually abandoned in all areas except South America.
There are more than 250 varieties of the coca plant, but only three are widely used in the illegal cocaine drug trade: * Huanuco coca, grown in Bolivia and Peru * Amazonian coca, grown in the Amazon River basin * Colombian coca, grown primarily in Colombia
Source: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), "Coca Fact Paper: A Primer"
Colombian drug traffickers are responsible for most of the world’s cocaine base production, cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) production, and wholesale cocaine HCl distribution. While Colombia has long held the dubious honor of being the world’s largest producer of cocaine HCl, Colombia’s role as the world’s largest producer of cocaine base is relatively new. As a result of substantial increases in the size of Colombia’s domestic coca crop, Colombia is now the source of nearly 74 percent of the world’s cocaine base.
Source: DEA, "The Drug Trade in Colombia: A Threat Assessment."
Coca, used collectively to describe the four cocaine-bearing species of Erythroxylum plants, is the target of major eradication efforts in three Andean producer nations. However, accurate identification of coca species/varieties by classical botanical keying is very difficult. In this research, the genetic fingerprinting method of AFLP (Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism) was modified in order to establish relatedness among 132 known and unknown samples of coca leaf. The major accomplishments were that: (a) all types of coca were genetically distinguishable; (b) all 38 samples of coca from Colombia, collected by USDA during 1997-2001, appear to be unique variants of one species, E. coca var. ipadu; and (c) some geographic grouping of coca within Colombia is distinguishable. This research will be of interest broadly to scientists involved with plant identification, but especially to agencies dealing with trends in illicit coca and cocaine production and suppression. Erythroxylum coca, indigenous to the Andean region of South America, is grown historically as a source of homeopathic medicine. However, in the last century, cultivation of E. coca var. coca and three closely-related taxa for the production of illicit cocaine has become a major global problem. Two subspecies, E. coca var. coca and E. coca var. ipadu, are almost indistinguishable phenotypically; a related cocaine-producing species also has two subspecies (E. novogranatense var. novogranatense and E. novogranatense var. truxillense) that are phenotypically similar, but morphologically distinguishable. The purpose of this research was to discover unique AFLP DNA patterns ("genetic fingerprinting") that characterize the four taxa and then, if successful, to evaluate this approach for positive identification of the various kinds of coca. Of 11 AFLP primers tested, a combination of five proved optimal in differentiating the four taxa as well as a non-cocaine-bearing species, E. aerolatum. This method of DNA fragment separation was more selective and faster, for coca identification, as compared with analyses based on flavonoid biochemical profiles. Using the 5-primer AFLP approach, 138 known and unknown coca leaf samples were evaluated. Of these, 38 were collected in 1997-2001 from illicit coca fields in Colombia, and all were genetically differentiated from coca originating in Peru and Bolivia. Based on the DNA profiling, we believe that the Colombian coca now represents a hybridization of E. coca var. ipadu. Geographical profiling within Colombia also seems feasible, suggesting movement patterns for the germplasm as new production areas are developed.