A Church For the Poor And The Price of Cocaine

by Jia Tolentino

If you combined Harper’s Index with its Findings section and dramatically lowered the research quality of both, you would get my mind after a good Internet k-hole. Here are all the things I learned this week.

Last Thursday, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the nominal leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Bergoglio is the first-ever Pope to take the name Francis, which he did in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century Italian friar famous for his humility and love of animals. At age 24, St. Francis experienced a mystical vision that led him to seek out a life of poverty, embarrassing his rich father, who beat and imprisoned his son. After St. Francis was freed, he gathered an enormous following and continued to emphasize poverty as a primary virtue. To one bishop who disapproved of his monastic order’s lifestyle, he replied, “If we had any possessions, we should need weapons to defend them.”

In his new role, Pope Francis will be expected to clean up the finances of the Vatican Bank, the controversial privately-run firm with $8 billion in assets and a distribution network that spans over 100 countries. Last year, documents were released showing millions of dollars in transfers from the Vatican Bank to Catholic dioceses in America, earmarked to pay legal bills in child sex abuse cases. In January, the lack of transparency in the Vatican Bank led Italy to cut off all credit card processing within Vatican City; within a few weeks, the Vatican started conducting its transactions through a Swiss bank immune to normal banking rules.

The most common Pope names are John (21 popes), Gregory (16 popes), Benedict (15 popes), Clement (14 popes), Innocent (13 popes), and Leo (13 popes). In the 1860s, Pope Leo XIII appeared in a print ad for Vin Mariani, a stimulant-laced “cocawine” containing 6 milligrams of cocaine per ounce. “His holiness the Pope writes that he has fully appreciated the beneficient effects of this Tonic Wine, and has forwarded to Mr. Mariani as a token of his gratitude a gold medal bearing his august effigy,” states the advertisement. Other celebrity endorsers of Vin Mariani included Jules Verne, Henrik Ibsen, and Thomas Edison; around this time, Sigmund Freud published his first major scientific piece, entitled Uber Coca, and wrote love letters to his fiancée with sentences like “If you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who does not eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”

Pope Francis, who told journalists he would like a “poor Church, and for the poor,” was born and raised in Argentina, a country that consumes five times more cocaine than the global average and accounts for 25% of domestic demand for the drug in Latin America. In Buenos Aires, Pope Francis’s hometown, a gram of cocaine sells for about $20 — a sixth of what it costs in the States — and a tremendously popular crack-like substance called pacosells for as little as 30 cents for a 10-minute dose. The country is working on its drug problem; the addicts in one paco-blighted slum in Buenos Aires remember Pope Francis as the cardinal who used to come in and wash their feet.

Up to 90% of the cocaine sold in this country is grown in South America. Coca growers receive around $1.30 for each kilogram of harvested coca leaf; it takes between 450 and 600 kilograms of coca leaf (or, $585–780) to produce one kilogram of cocaine. In interior Colombia, this kilo enters the trade at a price of $2,200; by the time it reaches the ports of Colombia, it costs between $5,500–7,000; by the time it gets to Central America, it costs $10,000. When it’s sold wholesale to dealers in America, the kilo has gone up to $25,000 wholesale; in Europe, a kilo costs $54,000; in Australia, over $200,000.

Early last week, while the cardinals were deliberating their new leader in the Vatican, Bolivian President Evo Morales recalled Vin Mariani at a press conference and voiced his hope that the next pope would “use the wine like Mariani.” This seems unlikely, but of course drugs and religion are similar. They affect us differently based on our genetics, they aid us in times of need; they induce euphoria, they require repeat practice, they change a person’s character, they can govern our decisions, they can hurt us when we withdraw.

Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor, has a tumblr.

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