Coca tea and drug tests
A cup of coca tea in Peru (photo by Los viajes del Cangrejo, flickr.com)

Coca is a sacred plant in countries like Peru and Bolivia, and it’s easy to see why. Chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea can give you an energy boost and is traditionally believed to help prevent altitude sickness. It also has a number of traditional medicinal uses, including as an anesthetic and analgesic.

If you’re traveling in Peru, you can freely try both forms of imbibing coca. It is, after all, completely legal.

But if you might take a drug test when you get back home — as part of a job interview process or random workplace screening, for example — be careful (in the USA, 40% to 50% of all employers perform some kind of drug screening). Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea can both result in a positive drug test for cocaine.

Drinking Coca Tea

Coca tea is the most common way of consuming coca, at least among tourists in Peru. It’s completely legal: many hotels freely supply coca tea bags, and trekking guides often prepare fresh coca tea by seeping the leaves in boiling water (an authentic mate de coca).

Coca tea is a mild stimulant. The alkaloids found in coca leaves are the same used to ultimately produce cocaine. But you won’t feel much from drinking one, two or even three cups of coca tea — maybe a slight buzz, but nothing more than drinking the same amount of strong coffee.

Coca tea bags can be decocainized (yes, that’s a real word), but you rarely find them in Peru or Bolivia.

Coca Tea and Drug Tests: What the Studies Say

Before you start sipping coca tea at every opportunity, be aware that it can result in a positive drug test. If there’s any chance you might have a drug test when you get back home, then you should avoid coca tea (and coca leaves) altogether, just to be safe.

A number of studies have tested the levels of cocaine metabolites in urine tests, and the results are similar.

In “Identification and quantitation of alkaloids in coca tea,” Jenkins, Llosa, Montoya and Cone concluded:

“This study has shown that consumption of one cup of coca tea results in detectable concentrations of cocaine metabolites in the urine for at least 20 h. Therefore, coca tea drinkers may test positive in a urine drug test for cocaine.”

Mazor et al. in “Coca tea consumption causes positive urine cocaine assay,” found similar results. After drinking coca tea, three out of five of their study participants’ samples remained positive for cocaine at 36 hours.

A study for Problems of Forensic Sciences also found that participants who drank just one cup of coca tea screened positive for up to 36 hours (this being the limit of the test). Participants drinking two cups all remained positive at the 36 hour mark.

A study conducted by the Jockey Club of Great Britain and published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine also found that just a single tea bag of mate de coca contains “a significant amount of cocaine” and can result in a positive test for at least 24 hours following ingestion.

Examples of Positive Drug Test Results After Drinking Coca Tea

It’s not hard to find real life examples of people testing positive for cocaine and then claiming (correctly of otherwise) that coca tea was to blame.

In 2001, a woman working at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois tested positive for cocaine after a random drug test. The woman and her husband had previously been to Peru to adopt a baby. When the baby became ill, the doctor in Lima gave them some coca tea bags for the baby to drink. The woman began drinking them too, and continued ordering them while back home. In this case, the drug test result was overturned and the woman was reinstated.

In 2010, a probationary cop was fired from the NYPD after testing positive for cocaine. He claimed that his girlfriend’s mother had given him mate de coca after he was in a car accident, which caused the positive result. He was not reinstated.

In 2013, Ashley Beardsley, 23, of Long Neck, Delaware lost her job at the American Veterans Post. She tested positive for cocaine, but claimed her Peruvian coca tea was to blame. Her requests for a follow up test were denied.

Claiming that coca tea is the reason for a positive cocaine result seems to fall on deaf ears quite frequently. For the U.S. Department of Transportation, it’s officially no excuse at all. As its drug policy clearly states:

“You also must not accept such an explanation related to consumption of coca teas as a basis for verifying a cocaine test result as negative. Consuming or using such a product is not a legitimate medical explanation.”

Coca leaves in Peru
Bags of coca leaves — and coca toffees — on sale in San Pedro Market, Cusco (photo by Tony Dunnell)

Chewing Coca Leaves and Drug Test Results

While it’s relatively easy to find legitimate studies on coca tea and drug tests, less research seems to exist regarding chewing coca leaves.

Not so many tourists in Peru and Bolivia chew coca leaves — at least, not properly, like a true Andean local. A brief chew on a leaf or two does next to nothing, and would likely release far less cocaine metabolites than a cup of coca tea.

But when chewed “properly,” the effects of coca leaf are far more notable than three or even four cups of tea. With a good wodge of coca leaves tucked into your cheek, and using llipta to activate the alkaloids, you can feel quite a buzz and the side of your head can start to go numb. Various types of llipta (or llipt’a) exist in different regions of Peru. In the highlands it’s often made from the ashes of the quinoa plant. A tiny amount is added to the coca leaves, improving alkaloid extraction when chewing. You can normally buy llipta at the same markets that sell fresh coca leaves.

I haven’t been able to find any studies to prove this assumption, but I imagine that chewing coca leaves in the traditional manner would easily trigger a positive drug test for cocaine. You have been warned…

Are Coca Leaves and Coca Tea Bags Illegal Outside South America?

Coca tea is legal in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile, but illegal in many countries outside South America.

You are not allowed to bring coca leaves into the USA. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “It is illegal to bring coca leaves into the U.S. for any purpose, including to use for brewing tea or for chewing.”

While not so clearly stated, it is also illegal to bring coca tea into the USA. A 2016 document by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that coca leaves and any salt, compound, derivative or preparation of coca leaves is a controlled substance and is illegal in the United States. A “preparation of coca leaves” presumably includes coca tea as well as coca toffees and candies (also widely available in Peru).

Coca tea bags can be decocainized (yes, that’s a real word), and are therefore legal in the USA. You won’t find decocainized coca tea bags in Peru or Bolivia.

Coca leaves and tea bags are also banned in the United Kingdom. The www.gov.uk entry for Peru clearly states: “Don’t take coca leaves or coca tea out of the country. It’s illegal to import these items into the UK.”