Bolivia, Drug Use in

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Bolivia is a land of gaunt mountains, cold desolate plains, and semi-tropical lowlands situated in the central part of South America. Straddling the Andes mountains, Bolivia's 424,165 square miles occupy an area about the size of Texas and California combined. It is a big country, but with a population of only 7.9 million. About 15 percent are of European heritage; 25 percent are Aymara Indians, 30 percent are Quechua Indians, and 30 percent are mestizos (of mixed Indian and European ancestry). Although Bolivia is rich in mineral resourcespetroleum, natural gas, tin, lead, zinc, copper, and goldit is an economically depressed country, with 66 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Most of the population works in agriculture, which is generally low paying, while a small number work in the mines. In 1998, Bolivia had a national debt of some 4.1 billion in U.S. dollars and an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of 23.4 billion dollars.

Much of the Bolivian population lives on the bleak, treeless, windswept Altiplano (high plain), a plateau more than 13,000 feet above sea level. The Altiplano is an arid expanse of red earth, of about 40,000 square miles, with widely scattered Ilamas, sheep, cattle, and homesteads. However, the Altiplano is considered to be the most livable part of the country, with 70 percent of the population residing along its western quarter. Much of the rest of the people live in the Yungas, the Chapare, and the Benithe tropical jungles of northeastern and central Bolivia, where Erythroxylum coca thrives. Erythroxylum coca, or simple "coca," is the shrub from which Cocaine is derived (Inciardi, 1992).


Historically, the chewing of coca leaves was a cultural practice among the Indian peasant laborers of the Andes. The mild stimulation received from the low cocaine-content leaves enabled workers to endure the burdens of their 12- to 14-hour days in the mines and in the fields, so both Bolivian and Peruvian laws have permitted controlled production of coca for domestic consumptionabout 12,000 kilograms (kg) in Bolivia (which also includes production for international pharmaceutical use). A part of the Bolivian economy has therefore always depended on the cultivation, transport, and sale of coca leaves.

The growers of illegal coca in Bolivia are the thousands of farm families who have shifted away from the cultivation and harvest of more traditional crops. In the early 1990s, coca accounted for as much as 40 percent of Bolivia's agricultural production, about 50 percent of its gross domestic product, and about 67 percent of its export earnings. However, the Bolivian government, with the assistance of the United States, began to take steps in the 1990s to eradicate illegal coca cultivation. Bolivia is now the third-largest cultivator of coca, after Peru and Columbia. Voluntary and forced eradication programs have dramatically reduced coca production, with a 55 percent reduction since 1995. The Bolivian government has encouraged farmers to grow legal crops and has set a goal of total elimination of illegal coca production by 2002.


Not surprisingly, drug use in Bolivia is related to the production of coca and cocaine. Many people in Bolivia have tried coca products in one form or another. However, in Bolivia abuse of cocaine generally involves neither the chewing of coca leaves nor the ingestion of either powder-cocaine or Crack-cocaine, but rather, the smoking of Coca Pastean intermediate product in the transformation of the coca leaf into pure cocaine. In jungle refineries, coca leaves are treated with a wide variety of chemicals, including alcohol, benzol (a petroleum derivative used in the manufacture of motor fuels and insecticides), sulfuric acid, leaded gasoline, sodium carbonate, and kerosene. The process yields crude cocaine (coca paste). Whereas the cocaine content of leaves is relatively low, 0.5 percent to 1 percent by weight, paste has a cocaine concentration ranging up to 90% (Inciardi, 1992).

Known to most South Americans as basuco, susuko, pasta basica de cocaina, or just simply pasta, coca paste is typically smoked straight or in cigarettes mixed with either Tobacco or Mari-Juana. The smoking of coca paste became popular in Bolivia and other parts of South America beginning in the early 1970s (Jeri, 1984). Readily available and inexpensive, it had a high cocaine content and was absorbed quickly. As the phenomenon was studied, however, it was quickly realized that paste smoking was far more serious than any other form of cocaine use. In addition to cocaine, paste contains traces of all the chemicals used to process the coca leaves initially, the oxidized products of these solvents, plus any number of other alkaloids present in the coca leaf.

When the smoking of paste was first noted in South America, the practice seemed to be restricted to the coca-processing regions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, appealing primarily to low-income groupsit was a cheaper price than refined cocaine. By the early 1980s, however, it had spread to other South American nations and to the various segments of the social strata; throughout that decade, paste smoking further expanded to become a major drug problem for much of South America. Although there have been no systematic studies of coca paste use in Bolivia, most observers report that it is concentrated among the impoverished youths of the country's many rural and urban shantytowns (Farah, 1989; Germani, 1988; Noya, 1989), where it contributes to other health-compromising conditions such as poor nutrition, sniffing of gasoline or other Inhalant drugs, and excessive use of alcoholic beverages. New population surveys being completed in Bolivia should help people in that country understand the nature and magnitude of their coca-related problems and help them devise preventive strategies.

(See also: Coca Plant ; Colombia As Drug Source )


Burke, M. (1991). Bolivia: The politics of cocaine. Current History, 90, 65-68, 90.

Farah, D. (1989). Bolivia's cocaine trade is consuming its children. Washington Post, September 18.

Germani, C. (1988). Coca addiction hits home among rural children of drug-producing Bolivia. Christian Science Monitor, September 29.

Healy, K. (1988). Bolivia and cocaine: A developing country's dilemmas. British Journal of Addiction, 83, 19-23.

Inciardi, J. A. (1992). The war on drugs II: The continuing epic of heroin, cocaine, crack, crime, AIDS, and public policy. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.

Jeri, F. R. (1984). Coca-paste smoking in some Latin American countries: A severe and unabated form of addiction. Bulletin on Narcotics, 15-31.

Noya, N. (1989). Cocaine crisis in Bolivia. Paper presented at What works: An international perspective on drug abuse, treatment, and prevention research, October 22-25, New York.

White House Office of National Drug Control Pol-Icy. (2000). National Drug Control Strategy: 2000 Annual Report. Washington, D.C.

James A. Inciardi

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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