In Italy, a 38-year-old bus driver from Genoa, known only as Roberto, recently tested positive for cocaine during a routine drugs test. Roberto vehemently protested his innocence, claiming that he did not use drugs despite anything the test might have to say. The case was made more confusing by the fact that, according to La Repubblica, Roberto had acquired an exemplary record of service over ten years of employment with the company. Casting around for an explanation, Roberto recalled that he regularly used a certain type of tea as a pick-me-up, claiming that drinking this tea left him feeling more alert. The day before the test he had consumed a cup of this tea, called “delissa alla coca.” The company doctor asked him to bring in some of the tea bags and, in the spirit of true scientific inquiry, drank a cup himself and then took a drug test. The doctor also tested positive for cocaine.
So much for Roberto, whose story checked out and who was presumably cleared. The company doctor, however, felt compelled to report the tea to Italy’s food regulation enforcement authority, as the cocaine teabags had been purchased in a normal manner from an ethnic Peruvian food store in the center of the city. The food police tested the teabags and found that they had been made with small quantities of ground coca leaves and contained a “not insignificant” quantity of cocaine hydrochloride, the active ingredient in cocaine. They found that there was a sufficient quantity of cocaine hydrochloride to potentially impair the judgement of a driver, and promptly declared the tea to be a dangerous substance.
What’s amazing about this story, however, is that this is not a case of a food product being secretly adulterated with cocaine. A search for the term “Delisse Tea” will immediately bring up a web page selling “Delisse Coca Tea.” The front matter and advertising copy of the web page clearly states that the tea being sold is made with coca powder, and coca is widely known to be the raw vegetable material from which cocaine is processed.
It is difficult enough to understand how Roberto could have been unclear as to the nature of his beverage, given its name and its effect on him, but what is staggering is the fact that the tea had passed without incident through several layers of Italy’s food safety and approval processes. Italian authorities, when presented with a product that is effectively labelled “cocaine tea,” and which is openly advertised as such, somehow deemed it to be safe and legal for sale. On top of this, the cocaine tea has been sold in Italy for years, routinely being shipped in from Peru and passing easily through the entirety of Italy’s customs processes regularly and without incident. Since the incident, however, Italian police have ordered the product to be removed from the shelves.
Coca use is protected under UN conventions on drug use in countries like Bolivia and Peru. Residents of areas around the Andes mountains have a long history of chewing coca leaves in order to ameliorate the effects of altitude sickness and the governments of Bolivia and Peru argued strenuously that this use was traditional and not in any way illicit or a form of cocaine abuse. Everywhere else, coca, because of its association with cocaine, is a Schedule 1 controlled substance. The use of coca is defined in a contentious study made by the UN as a “form of cocainism,” and participants in the UN drugs conventions (including the USA and Italy) are required to ban and control the import of coca. U.S. citizens importing coca tea could face serious charges, even though the Peruvian wholesalers of the tea operate in what appears to be a completely legal manner. It is very important to check your local laws and regulations before purchasing anything like this on the Internet. The safest approach, of course, is not to purchase it at all.
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