In March 2009, Bolivia's President Evo Morales chewed a coca leaf at the UN High Level session on drugs in Vienna. He announced he would seek the abolition of the articles in the 1961 UN Single Convention that stipulate that the chewing of coca leaves should be eliminated within 25 years, after the treaty entered into force.
He was applauded forcefully by those attending, and hope returned to me. Would rationality and justice finally find its way to this nerve centre of international drug control? Is there still a chance this extremely embarrassing mistake committed by the world community 50 years ago could be corrected, recognising human fallibility without fear.
Morales’ special mission in Vienna was meant to explain the officials present why Bolivia simply cannot accept the existing ruling framework. “If this a drug, then you should throw me in jail,” said Morales. “It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction.” In order to finally rectify a historical mistake, he presented a formal amendment, asking for the removal of the articles.
In two weeks time, on January 31, the deadline ends for countries to present objections to this change; without any objections the amendment would automatically enter into force. And at this very last moment, the United States formed a “friends of the convention” group and announced it would object. Several other countries – notably the Russian Federation, Japan, Colombia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark and Estonia – have announced to present a formal objection as well. The exact arguments are yet to be known, but most likely bear no relation with the protection of the coca chewing population against the dangers of drugs abuse. The first case of intoxication of a person by consuming coca leafs is yet to be reported in the world, being more probable the fact it has brought benefits upon their health and their sense of identity and community.
The proposed amendment to the Single Convention by the Bolivian government is a very reasonable proposition, and represents a positive opportunity for countries to express their gained insight on mistakes from the past. Sixty years ago brief visit by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf to Peru and Bolivia basically defined the case. On arriving in Lima in September 1949, the head of the Commission Howard B. Fonda gave an interview before beginning his work, in which he said: “We believe that the daily, inveterate use of coca leaves by chewing ... not only is thoroughly noxious and therefore detrimental, but also is the cause of racial degeneration in many centers of population, and of the decadence that visibly shows in numerous Indians - and even in some mestizos - in certain zones of Peru and Bolivia. Our studies will confirm the certainty of our assertions and we hope we can present a rational plan of action ... to attain the absolute and sure abolition of this pernicious habit.”
The conclusions of the Commission were already reached before the enquiry even began. Now a representative of those so-called “racial degenerates” that have chewed coca all their lives has become President of Bolivia and asks for the abolition of these backward racist provisions. So what is the problem, one might ask. You would assume that “friends of the convention” would like to get rid of the embarrassing provisions as soon as possible. Or do we still think of our indigenous brothers and sisters as backward and ignorant, in need for our help to understand the universe? Has progress in human and natural science gathered in these past decades not led to believe otherwise?
It seems that those who do not regularly chew coca have run mad. All recent efforts to establish support in international fora resulted in proof for the point made: a cultural heritage that harms no person, merits protection and a legal base. Outcomes of a WHO study on coca/cocaine in 1995, determined that the “use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.” Moreover, the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights approved in September 2007 – recently endorsed by the United States on December 16, 2010 –, promises to uphold and protect indigenous cultural practices.
The proposed amendment by Bolivia implies a mere symbolic change: no new country will be facing masses of coca chewing citizens. Not objecting to this amendment simply recognizes coca chewing is there to stay. Time has come to repair a historical error responsible for including the leaf amongst the most hazardous classified substances, causing severe consequences for the Andean region. It is a sad fact that our governments are representing us citizens in disregard of facts, led by mere ignorance and fear. Still there is a chance now to come to our senses.