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Coffee, Coca, and Government Favors

If you hate the War on Drugs, Ricardo Cortés should be one of your favorite illustrators. I talked to him about his book, 'A Secret History of Coffee, Coca, & Cola,' which documents the cozy relationship that Coca-Cola had with the US government's drug...
Harry Cheadle
Κείμενο Harry Cheadle

If you hate the War on Drugs, Ricardo Cortés should be one of your favorite illustrators. Though his most well-known work is probably the art for last year’s viral children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep, he’s been working to convince people that our counterproductive prohibitions on certain substances need to end since at least 2005, when his book for kids about marijuana, It’s Just a Plant, sparked a lot of less-than-level-headed debate. He also published a pamphlet on jury nullification, which is the idea that juries can choose to declare defendants not guilty if the law seems unjust to them—his idea, shared by other anti-Drug War folks like The Wire’s writing staff, is that this controversial power should be used to acquit everyone charged with a non-violent drug offense regardless of evidence. (I interviewed Ricardo about this a year ago.)

This week, Akashic Books published what’s probably Ricardo’s most ambitious picture book: A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, which he has been working on for six years. During the research process, he found a bunch of letters between Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first drug czar—who held the post for 42 years and is responsible for many of the US’s anti-marijuana, anti-narcotic policies—and Ralph Hayes, a Coca-Cola executive. Their friendly correspondence, which, as the book documents, went on for decades and ended in the 60s, helped the soda company secure the exclusive rights to import and process coca leaves, which are otherwise illegal to possess in the US. (The New York Times uncovered Coke’s use of coca back in 1988, but the company has yet to acknowledge their use of the plant.) Ricardo’s book isn’t limited to a critique of this favoritism—there’s also a history of past attempts to criminalize coffee, and interesting stuff about the US government growing coca in experimental farms in Hawaii. I called Ricardo up and talked to him about the book, which, by the way, would make a nice holiday gift for Drug War doves of all ages. (You can buy it here.)

VICE: Hey Ricardo, thanks for talking to me. I heard from the press materials that this project started out as an idea for a kid’s book, like It’s Just a Plant.
Ricardo Cortés: When I did It’s Just a Plant, I got a lot of criticism about, “We shouldn’t be teaching kids about marijuana.” The book wasn’t about teaching kids how to smoke, of course. But I got a lot of people that were like, “Well, why don’t you do a kid’s book about cocaine?” and they kind of gave me a challenge to think about that, and to think about if that would be relevant to kid’s lives. And I wasn’t really interested in doing a children’s book about cocaine, but I did think, Well, the coca leaf is highly relevant to children’s lives in the Americas. Maybe not to children in the US, but in South America, kids actually pick coca leaves and families subsist on it, and it’s been part of the culture for thousands of years. So, yeah, the book started out that way, and that’s why it sort of looks like a children’s book. Originally I was thinking it would be talking about the coca plant, and as I got deeper into the history of cocaine and Coca-Cola, which even though it takes up a huge part of the book, was kind of a secondary aspect of it. It evolved into the adult book it is.

I kind of see the book as two things. There’s a first part of it, which is kind of a meta-conversation about the evolution of cultural and legal taboos against intoxicants. And that’s why it starts out with the image of tomatoes and potatoes, because these things have been banned at one point or looked at askew, just like coffee. I kind of see all these plants as things that through these cultural evolutions where people scapegoat them and ban them. Like when some in this country thought that apples were the fruit of the devil and got people drunk back when people were fermenting apples. Then, decades later, we’ve got the expression, “As American as apple pie.” So I saw coffee and coca as these two plants that grew on the same mountainside, were picked by the same people for thousands of years, and are both really benign stimulants. Both have been transformed into global commodities, but coffee is totally legal and accepted culturally around the world, and coca is this super-illicit, super-illegal, Drug War-starting plant. The conceit of the book was to introduce coffee, then talk about coca and show how these plants have developed over time and established these relationships with people. So, really, I think the story of Coca-Cola is a vehicle for telling the bigger story which is largely about drugs in general, but I really got into the nitty-gritty of the research.


It’s really remarkable to read the letters between Hayes and Anslinger in your book. They’re really upfront about saying, “We’re want to use this plant you want to make illegal for our legal product.”
Some of that stuff is on my website, where you can actually see the actual documents. But my favorite part was just how chummy they got. You kind of get a sense of their different styles. Like Ralph Hayes was just a total kiss-ass, but really professional about it, a real professional, diplomatic guy who would constantly say to Harry, “Oh, you’re the best at what you do, and your department is like a beacon to the world.” And Anslinger just ate it up.

It said in your author’s note in your book that you talked with representatives from Coke. How’d that go?
I was calling Coca-Cola, I was talking to their PR guys, and at first I kind of approached them wanting to talk about the flavor of Coca-Cola, and they were really into it, and we were talking about how we like to drink Coca-Cola and all that. But once I started getting into the questions of “Well, OK, yeah, I want to address these rumors of coca,” they just won’t talk about that at all. But because Stepan [the company that processes coca on behalf of Coke] imports coca leaf, they have to apply to the DEA, so those records you can find. And that’s another thing, actually, that I’m about to put up on the website—you’ll be able to see the most recent filings, because they do it every couple months.

What do you think about the prospects for legalizing or decriminalizing the coca plant?
Coca, in Bolivia and Peru and throughout the Andes, is technically illegal according to the UN, but if you’re there it’s not illegal at all. Everyone chews it, you can get it at the markets. I mean, coca has been chewed for almost 10,000 years, so it’s crazy that in the last couple decades we think we’re going to ban it. If the plant were going to be legalized, I don’t really think it would be a recreational drug in the United States. I mean, you basically need it kind of fresh, and it’s nothing that blows your mind. It’s not an experience you can’t get from a cup of coffee. The legalization of coca is something Bolivia is trying to do now. They’ve gone to the UN, and now they’re going again. So, we’ll have to see. The United States is leading efforts to keep coca banned. I don’t really see the US position changing any time soon, but the one thing that I would kind of love to see come out of the book is just a conversation on why is the US so adamant about trying to stop coca when we’ve given a license to Coca-Cola to use this in their plant.

What are you working on next? Any plans for a kid’s book on heroin?
No, I’m not interested in a kid’s book about heroin just yet. Actually, right now I’m working on a children’s book about sharks. It’s not a political thing, it’s just about sharks. I’m kind of going back to my roots of when I was a kid drawing sharks and dinosaurs.

Visit Ricardo’s website,, for more information about this project and to see a list of events where he'll be speaking about his work.