Seeking Decriminalization of Coca Leaf

Overview of drug laws and legislative trends in Bolivia.


Not much has been done to open the discussion toward a more humane legislative framework for drug control.

The current law prohibits drug use and punishes possession for personal use with internment and forced treatment. Domestically, a legal market for coca leaf has always existed and Bolivia is trying to change the international legal regime for the coca leaf.

In March 2009, President Evo Morales requested the deletion of articles in the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs prohibiting the chewing of the coca leaf. This marks an important first step that will be followed by initiating the WHO procedure to withdraw the coca leaf from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention.

While other reforms have been announced in regard to the Bolivian drug law, changes remain to be seen.


Law 1008 of 19 July 1988 on the regime applicable to coca and controlled substances:

Article 35. Prohibition of possession or storage: “No natural or juridical person may have or possess in any form or quantity, or in any place, drugs that contain or consist of controlled substances, without prior authorization from the Ministry of Social Welfare and Public Health, in consultation with the National Council Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Traffic.”

Article 37. Traffic and consumption: “The traffic, portioning and consumption of controlled substances listed in the schedules of the annex to the present Law are prohibited.”

Article 48. Traffic: “Any person who engages in traffic in controlled substances shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of ten to twenty-five years plus a fine at ten thousand to twenty thousand times the daily rate.”

Article 49. Consumption and possession for consumption: “Drug-dependent persons or non-habitual consumers apprehended in the possession of controlled substances in minimal quantities that are presumed to be intended for their own immediate personal consumption shall be detained in a public or private institution for drug-dependence to receive treatment until such time as certainty regarding their rehabilitation has been established.

The minimum quantity for immediate personal consumption shall be determined through a ruling by two experts from a public institution for drug-dependence. If the quantity held is greater than the minimum quantity, it shall fall under the provisions of article 48 of this Law."

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Drug laws and legislative trends in Bolivia

The current legislation on drugs in Bolivia came into effect in 1988, when the National Parliament decreed the Law on Coca and Controlled Substances (the so-called Law 1008). Currently in effect in its original form, the law has been strongly criticized since its inception by civil society organizations, law practitioners and jurists, and Human Rights defenders and has been labeled unconstitutional, excessively severe, and contrary to the principles of justice.

Some characteristics:

  • Does not fully guarantee the right to a defense
  • Provisional liberty does not exist
  • The Tribunals and procedures are special
  • Inadequate characterization of criminal acts
  • Disproportional penalties
  • Prohibits drug consumption

Law 1008 consists of a first part called “the coca regime” which regulates the cultivation and marketing of the coca leaf in national territory. The cultivation and marketing of coca leaf is legal, because traditional use of that leaf is part of the countries history, culture and customs. The second part deals with the coca leaf’s derivatives (coca paste and cocaine), other controlled substances, and precursors.

The administration of President Evo Morales announced that Law 1008 would be subject to reform when it assumed office. Currently, the coca producer’s organizations are working on proposals to reform the law.

On the other hand, the Penal Code was modified to include harsher sentences and procedures (see also: Bolivia endurece el sistema penal para recluir a más delincuentes, La Prensa, 19 de mayo, 2010). The reform of Law 1008 remains pending.

The new Constitution, includes an article that declares the coca leaf to the part of the nation’s cultural heritage and gives it legal protection:

Article 384
The State protects the ancestral coca plant, as part of its cultural heritage, as a renewable natural resource of Bolivian biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. The revaluation, production, commercialization and industrialization will be regulated by the law.
Fourth Part, Title II, Chapter Seven, Section II: Coca.

The Government of Bolivia has taken the first step towards changing the international framework on controlled drugs with the objective of eliminating the stigma that falls on the coca plant. With an amendment presented by President Evo Morales at the High Level Meeting which took place in March, 2009 in Vienna, Bolivia proposes to remove the references to traditional consumption in two articles of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics. For more information about this topic see also: Unscheduling the coca leaf.