Blessing in disguise?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Yesterday, President Evo Morales of Bolivia sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon rejecting the recommendations of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea." Morales qualified the attitude of the INCB as colonial and accused the Board members of lacking the necessary scientific background.

In his letter, Morales said the Board’s findings were an "attack" against the indigenous peoples of the Andean region. He reminded the UN that the World Health Organisation has started a research programme the use of the coca leaf in treatment against osteoporosis, altitude sickness, obesity, gastrointestinal problems and respiratory ailments.

Blessing in disguise?

In a blog by Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center he argues that the Board’s recommendations may be a blessing in disguise. According to him the Board "never argued that chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea was unhealthful or dangerous. No, the logic of the panel was just one of consistency."

"The UN panel argues simply: A treaty is a treaty and domestic policies ought to reflect the same rules. As the UN Board’s chair told Bloomberg News, 'If the provisions of the convention are being breached, the board in its wisdom, or lack of wisdom, is obligated to act'."

According to Jim the Board's harsh recommendations maybe even intentional: "Its suggestion just demonstrates, in way far more effective than anyone in Bolivia could have, the true silliness of keeping coca and products like coca tea on the UN list."

Could this be a diabolical plot to remove the coca leaf from the list of most dangerous drugs of the 1961 Single Convention? I wish I could share the optimism of my good friend Jim. However, the Board's findings show a profound misunderstanding of the traditional use of coca.

The Board also recommended "Bolivia to formulate and implement education programmes aimed at eliminating coca leaf chewing, as well as other non-medical uses of coca leaf." (INCB Report 2007, par. 480)

"The short-term objective of such education programmes should be to discourage the practice of coca leaf chewing while preventing the expansion of the practice among students and youth, drivers of public transport vehicles and other vulnerable groups in Bolivia. Such education programmes should be evaluated taking into account the extent and trends of coca leaf chewing, as well as the role that it plays in the progression of drug dependence." (par. 481)

The Board could just as well have recommended to the international community that the provisions on the coca leaf are a historical mistake that need to be corrected. That current scientific insight and more recent Conventions (in particular the recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) have superseded the current status of the coca leaf in the Single Convention, and that it should be removed from the lists of dangerous drugs.

That would have been a clear message to the international community to act upon. I am afraid that certain countries will use the Board’s findings to block every attempt to unschedule the coca leaf. But I sincerely hope Jim proves me wrong.