Coca leaf: A Political Dilemma

Sophie Ostler
APPG for Drug Policy Reform
September 2013

coca-leaf-political-dilemmaFor fifty years the World’s attitude to and treatment of the coca leaf and coca farmers has been controlled by the UN Drugs Conventions beginning with the Convention of 1961 which prohibited the production, possession and purchase of the coca leaf as well as cocaine. The assertion of this report is that the illegal status of the coca leaf is based upon a misinterpretation of science, first of all in 1950 with the publication of the misleading study of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf; and much later with the blocking of the publication of a report in 1995 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which made abundantly clear that the coca leaf itself has “no negative health effects”.

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Formally, coca leaf can be used for medicinal and scientific purposes, as prescribed by the 1961 Single Convention. It can also be used as a flavouring agent, as long as all the controlled alkaloids are removed. However because coca leaf contains the cocaine alkaloid, the consumer countries had a choice: either invest in the strengthening of the government and judicial systems of the producer countries and allow coca leaf to remain a legal product; or include coca leaf within the Conventions and invest in a war on drugs with massive weapons sales and fumigation programmes. The US, in particular, chose the latter course.

During the past 50 years, fragile government institutions and judicial systems in some Latin American countries have been further weakened and corrupted by wealthy criminals whose fortunes have been inflated by the cocaine trade. This report does not, however, seek to comment upon the status of cocaine.

The adverse consequences for coca farmers of the application of the UN Conventions to coca leaf cannot be overstated. They have inhibited important research into the potential of the coca leaf for farmers and communities, particularly in the Andean nations. The policy of spraying coca leaf farms in Colombia has caused appalling poverty. Also, the temptation for poor farmers and their families to work for the drug barons has been and continues to be irresistible while few, if any, alternatives are available. The WHO study of 1995 concluded that the coca leaf has positive therapeutic, cultural and social functions for indigenous Andean populations. We need to understand the full range of possibilities and the taxation potential of the range of products based upon the coca leaf, but this will be problematic while coca remains a controlled substance with the formal UN position being that it is harmful and addictive.

If countries do legalise coca production in their own countries, as in Bolivia, then the implications of the fragile government institutions for the production of legal coca leaf products while prohibiting the production of cocaine need to be fully assessed and addressed. The rule of law and government institutions, most particularly those in the security and judicial sectors, will need to be strengthened before real progress can be made to enable the Andean Countries to benefit from a legal market in coca leaf products.

The Medicinal and Nutritional Properties of the Coca Leaf

The controlled status of coca leaf means that research into its medicinal and nutritional properties has been limited. Further research is necessary. However, there are emerging indicators that coca leaf has potential benefits in treatments for hypoglycaemia and diabetes, for those undertaking exercise at high altitude, in the treatment of anaemia and for preventing bone fractures and osteoporosis. Also, the miniscule quantity of cocaine absorbed safely through coca leaf consumption has potential medicinal applications to combat constipation, help restore a run-down immune system, and improve digestion.

Coca leaf has been found to contain a rich store of nutrients including high levels of potassium, phosphorus and vitamins B1, B2, C and E as well as protein and fibre. The calcium content is higher than in milk and eggs. Potential uses include nutritional supplements as well as coca wine and essential oil.

Commercial Applications of the Coca Leaf

The exploration of the commercial potential of the coca leaf has also been inhibited by the prohibition of possession, cultivation and supply of coca leaf by the UN Conventions. This report points to a wide range of products which have been investigated and/or produced in relatively small quantities but which could have commercial potential if the legal framework for the coca leaf were changed. These include insecticides, paper products, biscuits, flavourings, ointments and creams, coca oil and cosmetics.


We have evidence to indicate that the coca leaf, if liberated from the constraints of the UN conventions, may offer the Andean nations opportunities to develop local and exportable products of medicinal and nutritional value. Coca products for commercial markets only may also provide jobs and the potential for tax revenue.

We recognise the need for robust regulation of any coca leaf product development and restrictions to prevent land laundering, i.e. use of a licence to grow coca leaf for legitimate purposes which is in fact used to enable the supply to reach drug traffickers. Whether the land used for coca leaf cultivation should be limited to government owned or controlled land will need to be explored.

It will be essential to support government institutions in the Andean region in delivering a regime of regulation. This will require that current aid programmes which are fragmented and are not sufficiently focussed on justice and employment will need to be reframed and the work of relevant institutions at UN level such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) needs to be urgently reviewed.

All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform for Drug Policy Reform (APPG - UK)

(The above text is the Executive summary of the report)


Recommendation 1: UN Review
The 2016 UNGASS is an opportunity to review the role of the major UN institutions concerned with drugs and development aid to better align their programmes and to ensure a focus on strengthening government institutions to promote security, justice and employment. In particular, the potential for the UNODC and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) to work more closely together should be examined.

Recommendation 2: WHO Report
That the results of the 1995 ‘WHO/UNICRI Cocaine Project, Briefing Kit’ report be published and the illegal status of the coca leaf within the UN Conventions be reviewed.

Recommendation 3: Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) review
That the ACMD undertakes a review of the legal status of coca leaf and makes recommendations.

Recommendation 4: Medical Research
That the apparent effectiveness of the coca leaf in the treatment of gastrointestinal symptoms, a run-down immune system, hypoglycaemia, diabetes, altitude sickness, anaemia, pain relief and other symptoms be fully researched and, if confirmed, medications should be developed.

Recommendation 5: Nutritional Value
That the World Health Organisation (WHO) be funded to produce a scientific report on all aspects of the nutritional value of the coca leaf and its potential as the raw material for the production of treatments and nutritional supplements.

Recommendation 6: Drug Therapy
That research into the potential of the coca leaf or metabolites of cocaine in the treatment of cocaine dependency be undertaken.

Recommendation 7: Commercial Research & Development
That a full economic analysis of the commercialisation of the coca leaf be undertaken, covering the economic costs, tax potential and benefits to the Andean Countries and the global economy.