"Let Me Chew My Coca Leaves"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The first day at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs was marked by the announcement of President Evo Morales of Bolivia that he would start the process to remove the coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention as well as the suspension of the paragraphs of that convention that prohibit the traditional chewing of coca leaf. Holding up a coca leaf in front of delegates at the UN summit on drugs he underlined his demand.

The speech of Morales overshadowed the bland statements of Executive Director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, who tried to show the success of the UN drug control system while there is actually very little, if anything, to show for. He announced that he had sent a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, requesting the suspension of the paragraphs of that convention that prohibit the traditional chewing of coca leaf.

Morales said ha had come to Vienna to correct the historical error made 48 years ago with the adoption of the UN Single Convention of 1961 which placed the coca leaf in the same category with cocaine — thus promoting the false notion that the coca leaf is a narcotic — and ordered that "coca leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years from the coming into force of this convention." These restrictions, prohibitions to the chewing of the coca leaf established in titles 1 c) and 2 e) of article 49 of the 1961 Convention constitutes an attack on the rights of the indigenous peoples as established in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Holding up a coca leaf to the audience, he explained that coca is part and parcel of a culture in the Andean region used by 10 million people in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and the north of Chile and Argentina, with significant cultural and medicinal uses dating back 5,000 years. President Morales explained that the new constitution of Bolivia, which was approved by the Bolivian people, specifically protects the coca leaf in its natural form. Putting the coca leaf into his mouth, he explained that he used coca regularly for 10 years while he was a farmer, and that clearly if there had been any adverse affects from coca he would not have been elected President.

He referred to report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf in 1950, which was the rationale for including the coca leaf in the 1961 Single Convention. The report affirms that the chewing of the coca leaf does not generate an addiction to the drug from a medical point of view. However, the report considered the mastication of the coca leaf a "habit", and with non-scientific arguments, mistaken arguments and socio-cultural prejudices it says that the chewing of the coca leaf must be suppressed because it maintains a vicious circle of malnutrition. "I consumed the coca leaf for 10 years when I worked in agriculture and I do not feel undernourished and I have almost fifty years of life," Morales said. "In addition, the report claims it induces the individual to detrimental changes of intellectual and moral character. I do not feel incapable, if so I would not be President of the Republic of Bolivia."

In an OpEd in the New York Times, Morales also explained the request of the Bolivian government. "Unlike nicotine or caffeine, the chewing of coca leaf causes no harm to human health nor addiction or altered state, and it is effective in the struggle against obesity, a major problem in many modern societies. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of human history, but sometimes we have the opportunity to correct them. It is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf."