UN needs to chew on its drug policy

Friday, March 7, 2008

cocaleafIn an article in the National Post from Canada, journalist Steve Edwards mocks the wisdom of the INCBs recent recommendation to 'abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea'.

"We don't ban beer and spirits because some folk abuse alcohol," the article says. "Yet as part of its bid to stamp out illicit cocaine consumption, the United Nations drug watchdog is telling millions of indigenous South Americans to ditch their millennia-old coca-chewing and coca tea-making traditions - and calling on their governments to criminalize the activities.

"Clearly the framers of the 1961 convention and its 1972 amendments were either ignorant of - or indifferent to - indigenous traditions when they wrote that production and trade in the coca leaf should be reserved for 'medical and scientific purposes'," Edwards continues.

Indeed, the decision was based on a controversial 'scientific report' that was prepared by the so-called Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf that visited Bolivia and Peru briefly in 1949 to "investigate the effects of chewing the coca leaf and the possibilities of limiting its production and controlling its distribution."

By nowadays scientific standards the report would be thrown in the trash can immediately. The report is sharply criticised for its arbitrariness, lack of precision and racist connotations. The team members' professional qualifications and parallel interests were also criticised, as were the methodology used and the incomplete selection and use of existing scientific literature on the coca leaf.

Nevertheless, the INCB keeps on basing its recommendations on this outdated piece of questionable science that was the basis for including the coca leaf on Schedule I of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 together with cocaine and heroin. The Convention also stipulated "Coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention" (Article 49, 2.e).

INCB president Philip Emafo said in an interview it's the Board's job to push for implementation of international drug laws, and countries that object on cultural grounds should seek amendments. Formally, he may be right, but - as TNI pointed out in its March 5 press release - the INCB’s statement is at odds with other international conventions and other articles in the drug conventions as well.

Emafo also needs to read his own organisation’s previous reports. In 1994 the INCB mentioned that drinking of coca tea "which is considered harmless and legal in several countries in South America, is an illegal activity under the provisions of both the 1961 Convention and the 1988 Convention, though that was not the intention of the plenipotentiary conferences that adopted those conventions."

Clearly, there is abundant jurisprudence to already partially correct the historical mistake, which the current Board seems to wilfully ignore. Given the INCBs current views, Governments should take on Emafo's invitation to amend the Convention.

Unscheduling the coca leaf would be the best solution, but as Edwards points out: "Notwithstanding all the legal mumbo-jumbo, it's too bad common sense can't rule the day, and indigenous traditions be left alone."

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