Bolivia Steps Up Campaign at U.N. to Legalise Coca Leaf

Haider Rizvi
Saturday, April 30, 2011

Is coca a dangerous drug that should be tightly regulated, or an essential part of Andean indigenous people's cultural and medicinal heritage? Or perhaps both? In the coming months, diplomats at the U.N. body will face the thorny issue of how to address the production and use of coca plants in the Andes region of South America.

The United States and some of its European allies contend that coca leaf is a narcotic substance and that its production must be banned in accordance with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The Bolivian government strongly disagrees, and for the past two years has been calling for an amendment to article 49 of the U.N. anti-narcotics treaty that considers coca production unlawful.

In a bid to convince the international community to legalise the use and production of coca in the Andes, President Evo Morales has repeatedly stressed that, "Coca is not cocaine."

Coca leaf-chewing by indigenous communities in the Andes is a centuries-old tradition. The native communities consider it a vital source of energy, nutrition and social unity.

Officials in northern Europe and the United States are opposed to Morales' call to declare coca leaf a non-narcotic crop because the use and abuse of cocaine is pervasive in their countries.

Experts say accurate figures on the numbers of cocaine users in the United States are hard to come by, but estimate the number of addicts at between three and four million.

According to Michael's House, a nationally recognised treatment center, the United States is the top user of cocaine in the world.

Medical research shows that cocaine, a refined, concentrated form of coca extract mixed with certain chemicals, causes hyperactivity and euphoria, but in high doses can lead to paranoia, delusions and addiction.

For decades, the U.S. has sought to extend its war on drugs to the Andean nations that grow coca, but with little impact on the flow of the drug to the United States.

A recent report by the International Narcotics Control Board noted that, worldwide, in many cases corrupt law enforcement officials work in collusion with the smugglers, and the U.S. is no exception.

Bolivia says it is taking effective actions against the illicit cocaine trade and adheres to INCB rules, but the U.S. continues to oppose La Paz's assertion that coca chewing be considered legal.

"The position of the U.S. government is not to support the proposed amendment based on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the 1961 Convention," the U.S. mission to the U.N. said in a recent statement.

Independent experts note that the U.S. itself has sought amendments to the anti-narcotics treaty in the past.

Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, which conducts research on global social movements and their struggle for economic, social and environmental justice, thinks the ban on coca chewing is "a violation of indigenous peoples' rights and that it is in contravention of several other treaties and declarations".

The U.N. biological diversity treaty and the declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, for example, fully recognise the right of native peoples to practice their cultural values and belief systems.

In a report released earlier this year, the INCB, which is obligated to implement the anti-narcotics treaty, criticised Bolivia for not doing enough to curtail coca leaf production and curb the use of cocaine.

"The board remains concerned about the continuous increase in both the reported total area under coca bush cultivation and the expected… leaf production since 2005," the report said.

For the Bolivians, such an assessment is nothing but a reflection of Euro-centric thinking about coca.

"[It's] part of a colonial mindset," Pablo Salon, the Bolivian ambassador to the U.N., told IPS in response to a question about why the U.S. and the some European governments were opposed to coca chewing.

Despite opposition from the U.S. and certain European nations, Bolivia has managed to get support from the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, as well as Japan and Spain, to amend the treaty.

Diplomats and U.N. officials told IPS that the rules to amend the treaty require that parties to the treaty hold an international conference, which has not been scheduled as yet.