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'Cocaine' tea has bitter taste of controversy

January 13, 1986

As I write this, I'm wired to the gills on cocaine. Speeding like a bug-eyed banshee. Flying first-class on the David Crosby Express.

That's what urinalysis shows.

The only trouble is, I haven't touched any cocaine. Not a single toot. Is the test wrong? Technically, no.

But it's not right, either. Here's what happened and why it illustrates a hazard of drug-testing mania.

Last week you probably heard about Health IncaTea, a Peruvian product sold in health food stores. Health Inca is an herbal tea made from coca leaves. "Just one cup leaves you feeling up," the box promises. The leaves are purportedly "decocainized" to remove the cocainethe same process used for Coca-Cola.

However, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that Health Inca Tea was not cocaine-free, and that traces of the drug turned up in urine samples of 36 tea drinkers.

The amount was quite small and not considered harmful for normal persons (Andean dwellers have been chewing coca leaves for centuries with no ill effects). But, as you might expect, some stooge in California drank 80 tea bags' worth of Health Inca and complained of "severe agitation." Surprise, surprise.

The reaction to the journal article was predictable.The DBA and FDA immediately announced plans to reassess the legality of Health IncaTea, and wholesalers yanked crateloads out of circulation. Meanwhile, health food stores were inundated by consumers who generously offered to buy up all remaining coca tea bags (no doubt to keep them from the hands of impressionable youngsters).

The controversy was too crazy to pass up. The other day I bought one of the last boxes of Health IncaTea from Beehive Natural Foods in South Miami. Dr. Lee Hearn, a well-known Miami toxicologist and drug expert, offered to test my urine after I drank the tea.

Honestly, this is not great stuff. My sister remarked that it smells like old lawn cuttings, and the taste is not dissimilar. The only way to choke it down is with honey.

Last Tuesday I drank less than two ounces. A day later I stopped by Dr. Hearn's lab to give a urine samplesure enough, the test revealed minute but detectable traces of a cocaine metabolite.

The big experiment began: On Wednesday I drank five cups between 8:30 P.M. and 11:30 P.M. That's 35 ounces of tea. God hasn't invented the bladder that can hold 35 ounces of hot tea, so it was a long night.

According to the journal report, each tea bag contains 4.8 milligrams of cocaine. Five tea bags are roughly equivalent to one line of street cocaine.

After the first cup, I felt slightly peppy and that's all. Pulse: normal. Frankly, I get more of a buzz from a can of Pepsi.

Even after five cups I wasn't exactly hanging from the ceiling by my fingernails. I wasn't grinding my teeth. I wasn't paranoid and I wasn't euphoric. I wasn't even doing my party impression of Robin Leach.

What I was, was bloated. Slept like a log. Pulse: normal.

The experiment continued: Thursday, 6 A.M. Groggily I aimed for the little bottle. Then the ultimate etiquette question of the 1980s: Exactly how does one carry a urine sample?

I tried an inside pocket of my coat, but then I thought: What if I get in a messy car accident? People will think I'm bleeding this stuff.

Next I tried the glove compartment, but then I thought: What if the top of the bottle comes unscrewed? It would ruin my new ZZTop tape, not to mention the auto warranty.

So I put the sample in my briefcase, which contains nothing of value, and drove to Toxicology Testing Service. On Friday Dr. Hearn called with the news: "A good strong positive."

Under both the common EMIT drug screen and the more sophisticated gas chromatography mass spectrometry, my urine tested positive. It showed cocaine and two related substances, benzoylecgonine and methylecgonine, the latter in such concentration that the test went off the scale, Dr. Hearn said.

"There was a bunch of cocaine," he said. "We found a complete pattern of someone who uses cocainea very high positive."

Except that all I had was coca tea, a legal product, purchased and consumed legally.

"It's not decocainized," Dr. Hearn asserted. The amount of cocaine in Health IncaTea probably isn't enough to get you high, he said, adding, "The only thing it can do is get you in trouble."

Why? Because many companies and branches of the military automatically fire, discharge or refuse to hire anyone whose urine shows benzoylecgonine. Courts, employers and DUI prosecutors have long recognized this as proof that someone has used illicit cocaine.

But, as shown, that's not necessarily so.

An expert witness in many drug trials, Dr. Hearn had never heard of Health IncaTea before last week. Most drug labs hadn't. It isn't known how many other such products are floating around.

Dr. Hearn plans more tests on the Health Inca brand. When he called the health food store to order a box, the price had jumped from $7 to $24the true spirit of free enterprise!

I told my boss that I failed the drug test but he refused to fire me, even though it would have made a better ending to the column.

The real ending is not so funny.

With consternation Dr. Hearn described the current case of a U.S. Air Force man in Panama. The Air Force wants to dump him because his urine tested positive for cocaine. All along, the serviceman has insisted that he's never used the drug.

What he has done, he says, is drink a blend of coca tea, purchased regularly (and legally) at a small Panama shop.

Last week Dr. Hearn called Air Force investigators and told them to go find a box of that tea.

This time it's not a lark. This time a man's career is at stake.

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