Close up of hands holding cocoa leaves

Buried deep – the medical benefits of an ancient herbal plant

22 January 2021
Prejudice against drugs can impact and deter scientific research
We are on the crest of a turning medical cannabis wave, but the same reform is lacking for substances such as coca, a plant well-regarded for its medical benefits in South America.

Coca is the raw material of the narcotic drug cocaine which drives crime and kills thousands annually. But, to people of South America, the coca plant is well regarded for its medical benefits.

The leaves of coca have been used historically as a mild stimulant and medical therapy for supressing pain and sickness in the Andean regions. Cannabis is another herbal plant that has been used for medicinal purposes but, like coca, is classified as an illicit drug in many countries across the world.

Cannabis has recently gained the attention of the scientific community, with countless studies being published into its use for health and medicinal applications. Coca, however, has not received the same attention despite its widespread use by rural communities for treating various ailments.

My parents were born and raised in Peru, and my father began his career working as a mining engineer in areas of La Sierra, the mountainous regions of the Andes. He tells me stories about the use of coca as a medicine by rural communities throughout his life. If you visit a local shop, you will likely find bags of raw coca leaves commercially available.

When my father worked strenuous night shifts in the mines, him and his colleagues would often ‘suck’ on these coca leaves as a way to boost their energy levels, productivity and ward off the cold.

For tourists, the coca plant is commonly served as mate de coca - a soothing and aromatic tea made from crushed coca leaves - at accommodations, restaurants and transport venues to prevent soroche (altitude sickness).

Similar to a hot chamomile tea, mate de coca can be used to treat indigestion, and can also act as a local anaesthetic to numb pain and reduce symptoms of general ailments.

A hot cup of mate de coca

A hot cup of mate de coca is made up of crushed coca leaves and is frequently used by locals of South America to treat altitude sickness, indigestion and general ailments.

Both the coca and cannabis plants have been used for millennia as herbal medicines. While coca crops are only produced and consumed in South America, cannabis crops became globally widespread in the 19th century. Western medicine soon caught on and uncovered the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis use.

The intervening years saw cannabis being used for treating many medical issues, ranging from reducing stomach aches and fevers to treating tumours and acting as an analgesic.

Research into cannabis’ medicinal benefits rapidly rose, which eventually led to its availability as an over-the-counter medication in the early 1900’s. However, the 1900’s saw a dramatic rise in recreational drug use, including cannabis and cocaine.

In a short time, the high praise of these drugs in their raw form diminished, and their medical benefits were plagued by negative stereotypes.

The ultimate effect is prejudice against these drugs and their crops, which has undoubtedly impacted and deterred scientific research. A recent keynote by Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known as the ‘father of medical cannabis research’, proposes:

Thousands of children and patients could have been helped, but because of possible legal problems and other perceived problems, nobody had taken up the information that was in the literature.

The tide has begun to turn on cannabis, with a medical revolution being jumpstarted. Countless research disciplines are now globally dedicated to advancing cannabis-based medicines by conducting a large number of clinical trials.

Their results have thus far supported the efficacy and therapeutic use of cannabis to help delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and alleviate chronic pain conditions and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Many promising trials have led to the first licensed cannabis-based medicine, Sativex, to treat seizures of epileptic patients and neuropathic-related cancer pain.

This rise in cannabis-based therapies has led to the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics being established by the University of Sydney in 2015, which is at the forefront of cannabinoid research in Australia.

The Lambert Initiative has made significant progress in pre-clinical research, clinical trials and conducting surveys on the efficacy and side effects of novel cannabinoid treatments.

In 2016, research efforts paved the way for the Australian government to legalise access to medicinal cannabinoid products. Since then, there have been more than 30,0000 approvals for patient access, the majority to treat chronic pain.

Cannabis legality has changed more in the last 5 years than the past century. The United States, Canada, Germany and Britain have all legalised medicinal cannabis use and now set a precedent for other countries to follow.

Given what we have seen with cannabis, is it possible that the raw materials of other illicit drug, such as coca, may offer unseen medical breakthroughs?

If it is, the question remains of how we can kickstart research into their medical benefits and break the historic division between medicinal and recreational drug use.

Written by Fernando Tinoco

PhD student, Faculty of Medicine and Health and Casual Academic, Faculty of Science

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