Towards a world market for coca leaf?

Friday, June 26, 2009

When we think of people like Pope Paul VI, the Queen of Spain or Britain’s Princess Anne, most of us do not think of them as criminals. But that is what they are, under the current international drug law. Their crime? They all sipped coca tea on their arrival to the Bolivian capital La Paz. 

A similar version was published as an OpEd in El Tiempo, June 26, 2009
See also: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers 17, June 2009

Bolivia is planning to submit a formal request to the UN to declassify coca as a narcotic drug, emphasizing in its arguments the traditional uses, such as the chewing of the leaf. Since coca’s inclusion in the UN Single Convention of Narcotics Drugs in 1961, every time we drink coca tea we break the law - as absurd as that sounds. 

The UN drug-control authorities have been claiming that the coca leaf is a narcotic, comparable to heroine or cocaine. It is, therefore, harmful to health and causes addiction. If this was true, hundreds of thousands of indigenous people chewing coca leaves on a daily basis would have died from overdoses. Or they would be addicted to cocaine. The same would happen to millions of people drinking coca tea or coca vine and eating biscuits made from the coca plant.  

Every initiative to question the legal status of the coca leaf has so far fallen on UN's deaf ears. It has been defending its decision without suitable evidence to support it. A study that condemned coca to illegality decades ago would never pass the scrutiny and critical review of today, to which scientific studies are routinely subjected. The whole world has seen the Bolivian President Evo Morales chewing coca leaves during the UN sessions. As he rightly pointed out then, the time has come to correct the historical mistake of including the coca in the UN's list of narcotics back in 1961.

Today’s UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking offers a perfect opportunity to remember all the failures of the international drug policies of the last few decades. Current drug policy has not succeeded in significantly reducing the production, trafficking or consumption of drugs. Instead, all it has managed to achieve so far has been an increase in corruption, deterioration of the social fabric of entire countries, and criminalisation and penalisation of individuals or entire groups. These people often belong to the most disadvantaged sectors of society, petty traffickers and drug users who crowd prisons around the world.

It is against this backdrop that we have to understand the Bolivian government initiative to declassify the coca leaf in its natural state. The Transnational Institute has published a report on coca myths which aims to disentangle any remaining misconceptions surrounding the coca plant. The debate is extremely politicised as two ideological extremes have long dug in their heels.

The report shows that coca leaf is most certainly not the same as cocaine, but it also condemns those who hail it as a miracle which will solve world hunger. Although coca is part of the tradition in the Andes, there is no denying the fact that most of the harvest ends up in laboratories for cocaine production. This is an undeniable fact that should not inevitably lead to the condemnation of the plant or its consumption.

The coca leaf is increasingly being used in different forms and the Andean Amazon indigenous population are certainly not the only users. New social groups such as urban middle classes in Latin America, Europe and the US now regularly use coca. Instead of its demise, as envisaged by the UN conventions, today we are witnessing the revival of the coca leaf and real opportunity for the creation of a world coca market. Not surprising, since the leaf is known for its health benefits such as overcoming altitude sickness, suppressing pain and fatigue, and aiding digestion. It is considered a mild stimulant comparable to coffee.

It has been scientifically proven that the coca leaf in its natural form does not affect health or public order. Taking the coca leaf off the UN’s list of narcotics would secure the sovereignty of the coca-producing nations and their indigenous population. Not only that, it would be a real economic benefit for the coca-growing communities without the fear of stigmatisation and the reduction in crime. For the sake of producers and consumers, let us hope that the Bolivian government’s petition to the UN is successful.

Pien Metaal is a researcher with the Transnational Institute. She specialises in Latin America and drug policy-related issues.