Tobacco and Coca: From Sacred To Addictive

By Neenah Payne

Tobacco is sacred to traditional Native American cultures. Yet, Americans turned it into a carcinogen. The coca plant is sacred to the indigenous cultures of the Andes. Yet, Americans turned it into cocaine. Why have Americans turned these sacred healers into deadly killers?

Evo Morales, the first president to come from an indigenous population, served as the 65th President of Bolivia from 2006-2019. Evo Morales and the Rehabilitation of Coca explains,

“coca leaf and natural coca alkaloids will contribute much to medicine and nutrition — helping to solve health problems that cost the world over one trillion dollars a year. Sadly, the negative association of coca leaf with cocaine… has denied coca leaf and natural coca alkaloids from being studied and experimented with…to discover entire new medical and nutritional uses.”

It adds:

“such developments and businesses need a global climate of support for such research into applications of coca, an openness to find such solutions, an embracing of Indian cultural legacies lost for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years. The doors of global legitimization need to be opened to coca leaf and natural coca alkaloid. History will record that this openness, this embracing, this legitimization can be traced back to the pioneering political efforts of Evo Morales, who put it simply and clearly: “Coca Yes, Cocaine No”. What follows is some of the history of these pioneering efforts of Evo Morales.”

Crack Cocaine: Iran Contra Scandal

What Is Cocaine?

Cocaine is a highly addictive drug that ups your levels of alertness, attention, and energy. It’s made from the coca plant, which is native to South America. It’s illegal in the U.S. Other names for it include: Coke, Snow, Rock, Blow, Crack. The most common form is a fine, white powder.  People who use cocaine often may have serious side effects and health problems like: Headaches, Convulsions and seizures, Heart diseaseheart attack, and stroke, Mood problems, Sexual trouble, Lung damage, HIV or hepatitis if you inject it, Bowel decay if you swallow it, Loss of smell, nosebleedsrunny nose, and trouble swallowing, if you snort it.”

You may have strong cravings for the drug and the high it brings. But the more you use cocaine, the more your brain will adapt to it. You’ll need a stronger dose to feel the same high. This can lead to a dangerous addiction or overdose. Your body and mind begin to rely on the drug. This can make it harder for you to think, sleep, and recall things. Your reaction time may be slower.”

During the Iran–Contra scandal, the Reagan administration facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, the subject of an arms embargo. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council diverted proceeds from the sales to fund the Contras in their insurgency against the socialist government in Nicaragua although Congress had prohibited funding them. The ensuing political scandal threatened to bring down the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

American Made is a 2017 film starring Tom Cruise inspired by the life of Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who flew missions for the CIA and became a drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel in the 1980s.

Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Cocaine Explosion:

“In 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb stunned the world with articles reporting his year-long investigation into the crack cocaine epidemic in America. The series, “Dark Alliance,” revealed that a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras. Webb pushed his investigation further in his book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. Webb demonstrates how our government allowed massive amounts of drugs and money to change hands at the expense of our communities.”

Kill The Messenger:

“The story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb which leads to men who started the crack epidemic on the nation’s streets…and alleges that the CIA was aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S. and using profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua.”

Restoration of Coca As A Sacred Plant

Morales shows coca leaf to U.N.

“Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, holds up a coca leaf as he speaks during the United Nations General Assembly 19 September 2006 at UN headquarters in New York.

Bolivian president Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf on the floor of the United Nations Tuesday in a passionate rebuke of U.S. criticisms of the South American nation’s anti-drug policies. The State Department on Monday included Bolivia in its annual list of major drug-transit or drug-producing countries, singling out Morales’ government for continuing to permit the legal harvest of coca, the principal ingredient in cocaine.

Morales, a former coca-grower elected in December as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, surprised the U.N. General Assembly by pulling out the small leaf – banned in the United States – and holding it aloft. ‘Coca is green, not white like cocaine,’ he said, to a smattering of applause. ‘Scientifically … it has been demonstrated that the coca leaf does no harm to human health.’ Morales has upped his government’s enforcement efforts against cocaine production while continuing to promote coca’s legal use in tea, medicines and other products.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christy McCampbell on Monday expressed ‘very serious concerns’ about the effectiveness of Morales’ coca policy. She reiterated demands for a more thorough eradication program, the development of alternative crops and an overhaul of Bolivian drug laws. McCampbell said that the U.S. would review Bolivia’s drug policies again in six months’ time. Without significant change in the Morales’ program, Bolivia could face decertification – the loss of some $100 million in U.S. government aid in the fight against narco-trafficking.

‘With all respect to the government of the United States, we are not going to change anything. We do not need blackmail or threats,’ Morales said. ‘Certification or decertification is an instrument of recolonization, or colonization, of the Andean countries. That we will not accept.'”

Tobacco and The Marlboro Man / Marlboro Country

The Marlboro Man is a man’s man, dressed Western, associated with cowboys and horses.


explains the when Philip Morris adopted the cowboy image to sell its cigarettes, sales went through the roof. “A story of how an image became so powerful that it became part of the American language — a masculine image so well defined that today the cowboy is synonymous with Marlboro and “Marlboro country” has become part of the American idiom.”

While the Marlboro ads evoked images of rugged health, the cigarettes delivered multiple serious health consequences as shown in The Effects of Smoking on the Body. However, other ads assured us that doctors preferred Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, or Camels. The health risks were ignored for years.

Tobacco: From Carcinogen Back To Sacred Plant

The Fight to Keep Tobacco Sacred points out:

“Tobacco has become a much-maligned plant in modern society. Cigarettes, which typically contain dried leaves from a tall, hybrid species called Nicotiana tabacum, are blamed for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States. And reams of scientific findings indicate that cigarette smoking—inhaling a toxic brew that can contain at least 70 cancer-causing chemicals—harms nearly every organ of the body.

But tobacco itself is not the problem, according to Gina Boudreau. In fact, she considers it sacred. And she is not alone. Many Native American communities, including hers, use the substance in traditional rituals and pass down stories about how and why the creator gave it to them.…they believe promoting tobacco use in more traditional ways, and rebuilding respect for the plant as a sacred element of Native culture, would have a better chance at making a real difference. ‘We’re trying to change community norms,’ Boudreau says.”

Gina Boudreau helps harvest locally-grown tobacco. Credit: Jean Dakota

“The first step toward this shift, according to Boudreau, is growing an indigenous tobacco species on the reservation. About eight years ago she started planting seeds of Nicotianarustica, a short and spindly-looking tobacco plant with a long history of growing wild throughout the Americas—and of ritual use by Native American tribes. It typically contains more nicotine than its lush-leafed commercial cousin N. tabacum, a characteristic that makes the indigenous plant’s smoke harder to inhale.

‘It’s about keeping tobacco sacred,’ says Dana Goodwin, 53, a White Earth Nation language and culture teacher at the Circle of Life Academy—a Bureau of Indian Education Grant school on the White Earth Nation reservation that offers K-12 education steeped in cultural traditions….Until the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, laws banned many Native American cultural practices, including various traditional uses of tobacco.”

Tobacco: Most Sacred Medicine

The Most Sacred Medicine

“Tobacco is considered the most sacred of the Indigenous sacred medicines, used in virtually every ceremony as a means of connecting directly to the Creator. Tobacco is also thought to be the first plant given to the Indigenous people by the Creator. Because of this, tobacco is most frequently used as an offering, either in order to give thanks, to make a request for wisdom or protection, or as a means of cleansing.”

Traditional Tobacco says:

“Traditional tobacco is a medicine, which can be used in a prescribed way to promote physical, spiritual, emotional, and community well-being. It may be used as an offering to the Creator or to another person, place, or being. A gift of traditional tobacco is a sign of respect and may be offered when asking for help, guidance, or protection. Traditional tobacco is sometimes used directly for healing in traditional medicine. It may be burned in a fire or smoked in a pipe, yet the smoke is generally not inhaled. In many teachings, the smoke from burned tobacco has a purpose of carrying thoughts and prayers to the spirit world or to the Creator.”

Keep Tobacco Sacred (Video)

Respecting Sacred Tobacco

Respecting tobacco: ceremonial vs. commercial tobacco use? explains:

“Ceremonial tobacco vs commercial tobacco. Is there a difference? Yes, a big difference.  Tobacco has been used traditionally by most Aboriginal cultures for thousands of years.  First Nations and Métis use tobacco for ceremony, healing and giving thanks, while commercial cigarettes serve an entirely different purpose. In fact they’ve been designed to be highly addictive and will make you sick.

Tobacco plants are often on their own or combined with other medicinal plants such as Sage (removes negative energy), Cedar (cleanses and protects) and Sweet Grass (brings spirit of love and kindness).  Out of the 4 commonly used medicinal plants, Tobacco is considered the most sacred by most Aboriginal peoples as it is believed to connect us to the spirit world.  It is important to note that these medicinal plants are treated with great respect. Only a few branches or leaves are taking so as to not kill the plant, and a prayer of thanks is offered to the plant for sharing its healing powers.

The biggest difference between ceremonial tobacco and commercial cigarettes is that generally ceremonial tobacco isn’t smoked, except during special ceremonial occasions, where it is burned in a pipe but not inhaled.  Ceremonial tobacco is also used for smudging, whereby the dried tobacco leaves are burned (often in combination with the other 3 plants) and the smoke is said to open the soul to allow the spirits to bring their healing powers and remove negative energy.  Smudging can be done alone or in a group smudging ceremony.

In many rituals and ceremonies, the leaves are not burned, but either placed on the ground, or in the water while offering prayers of thanks and asking the spirits to take our fears, stresses or pain away.”

Why Does Western Culture Turn Sacred Plants Into Addictions?

For Native Americans, the tobacco and coca plants are sacred healers. Why did Europeans and Americans turn them into addictive substances?

In Spiritual and Emotional Roots and Treatment of Addiction, Dr. John Townsend defines addition as  dependence on a substance or behavior that interferes with life or relationships. The American Dream tells us that if we get a good education, a good job, and a nice home, and have kids, we’ll be happy. However, the many suburban wives addicted to opioids attest to the emptiness of that promise for many.

Filming the opioid epidemic: 5 must-see documentaries reports:

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest public health crisis America has ever faced. Opioids are now responsible for more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Two recent Hollywood releases highlight just how far the addiction crisis has spilled onto the fabric of American society.”

Americans are literally dying to feel good. At the core of addition (including to shopping, work, etc.) is the need for more and more just to feel good, to feel normal. People who are subject to addictions are looking for something on the outside to help them feel good because they feel empty inside. They are medicating themselves to try to heal the emptiness.

So, what is the source of that feeling of emptiness? What’s missing in Western culture and that is present in indigenous cultures? The American Dream celebrates acquisition of wealth, power, fame, and position in society. However, part of the “mid-life crisis” is that some people who achieve the pinnacle of what is called “success” in America end up asking, “Is this all there is?

The American Dream leaves a hole in the soul. The West has been defined by Christianity since Constantine launched the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. As What Are We Celebrating On Halloween? shows, the Catholic Church used the brutal Inquisition for 300 years to divorce Europeans from their indigenous roots. With the Garden of Eden story, we lost our sense of connection to Mother Earth and, with that, a sense of identity and belonging. That robbed Westerners of the awareness of our fundamental responsibilities which provide people with a sense of self-worth and value. That loss has left many Westerners feeling empty and directionless — that they have no purpose in life.

This is part of the reason Philip P. Arnold, a member of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) and associate professor of indigenous religions at Syracuse University, says:  “How we in the larger society regard indigenous peoples — who have an ongoing relationship with the living earth — will determine our ability to survive.” We must learn to recover that lost sense of who we are and why we’re here.

What Happened To The Tribes of Europe?

The legendary John Trudell (1946-2015), Chairman of the American Indian Movement  from 1973-1979, pointed out that we are all descendants of tribal peoples. Most Westerners have just forgotten that — at least consciously.

In Take Back The Earth, Trudell called all peoples from the brink of destruction — urging us to remember our dependence on the Earth.

Evo Morales: Bolivia Built a Real Alternative to Capitalism

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

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