Major victory for President Morales: UN accepts “coca leaf chewing” in Bolivia

MercoPress (Uruguay)
Monday, January 14, 2013

morales-cocaBolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.

Morales celebrated the decision as a moral victory for his people and the centuries’ old culture based on the ‘acullicu’. “It’s not easy to change international legislation, particularly when 25 years ago they had decided to eliminate the coca leaf and with it, our culture”, said Morales who added that the coca leaf has been “criminalized, demonized, condemned world wide. Consumers have been described as narcotics-dependents and farmers narcotics traders”.

Of the 61 countries needed to veto the initiative only 15 turned out led by the US and UK, plus other European countries, Canada, Japan and Mexico.

“The objecting countries’ emphasis on procedural arguments is hypocritical. In the end this is not about the legitimacy of the procedure Bolivia has used, it is not even really about coca chewing,” according to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program. “What this really is about is the fear to acknowledge that the current treaty framework is inconsistent, out-of-date, and needs reform.”

The Institute noted that Bolivia’s success can be an example for other regional countries where traditional use of the coca leaf is permitted, including Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, to challenge the Single Convention on coca. It also called for the World Health Organization to undertake a review of coca’s classification as a Schedule I drug under the Convention.

“Those who would desperately try to safeguard the global drug control system by making it immune to any type of modernization are fighting a losing battle,” according to John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America drug policy program.

“Far from undermining the system, Bolivia has given the world a promising example that it is possible to correct historic errors and to adapt old drug control dogmas to today’s new realities.”

“I can’t stress enough how big this is. Once again, the United States snapped its fingers and told the rest of the world to get in line and oppose Bolivia’s move. But this time, while the UK joined them, most of the rest of the world just said “no, thanks.”

However it’s a largely symbolic victory, as this UN commission lacks the power to regulate coca leaf consumption in Bolivia in the first place. But the UN declaration has been welcomed by the Bolivian government, which is planning to invite the country's coca growers to massive coca-chewing events in the cities of La Paz and Cochabamba.

The coca leaf is the base material for cocaine. But for centuries indigenous people in the Andean mountains have chewed this leaf in its natural form to gain energy and decrease hunger. Some groups in the region also consider the coca leaf to be a sacred plant, and use it regularly for social and religious rituals.

Evo Morales, who is himself a former coca grower, has championed the decriminalization of the leaf since he came into office in 2006, chewing coca in international forums, praising its nutritional qualities, and even asking Sean Penn to be his global ambassador for the coca leaf. A special clause in the 2009 Bolivian constitution refers to the matter.

But the UN's decision to tolerate coca leaf chewing in Bolivia was not well taken by US diplomats, who claim that most of Bolivia's coca crops are being used for cocaine production, and not for traditional chewing.

“We oppose Bolivia's reservation and continue to believe it will lead to a greater supply of cocaine,” a senior US State Department official was quoted.

”While we recognize Bolivia's capacity and willingness to undertake some successful counter-narcotics activities, especially in terms of coca eradication, we estimate that much of the coca legally grown in Bolivia is sold to drug traffickers, leading to the conclusion that social control of coca (allowing some legal growing) is not achieving the desired results,” the official said in a statement.

Most member states did not object to Bolivia's readmission into the antinarcotics group or to the new statute which says that chewing, and growing the coca leaf, is fine within Bolivia. The non-objectors included Colombia and Peru which are the world's two biggest cocaine producers and also have very large crops of the coca leaf.

Some diplomatic representatives in La Paz had a hard time explaining why the vote of the fifteen on the US initiative. British ambassador Ross Denny said the decision was a bad example since it opens the door for other countries to present objections and thus weakening the UN Narcotics Convention. He added that the UK fears that the return of Bolivia on that condition could mean a greater production of coca leaves that end up with the narcotics trade.

But President Morales made a passionate defence of the ‘acullicu’ and the Andes highlands culture of chewing coca leaves and mentioned Harvard University and the World Health Organization papers supporting such consumption. “It’s good for human health and benefits those suffering from diabetes.

The official re-entry of Bolivia to the convention is scheduled for February 10 and is a milestone in the Bolivian government campaign to defend the ‘acullicu’ which has seen President Morales and his Foreign minister David Choquehuanca, both indigenous Aymaras, lobby around the world in support of the coca leaf chewing tradition.