Bolivia wins UN battle for right of indigineous peoples to chew coca

Bolivia achieved a major victory several few weeks ago when it was re-admitted to the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (SCND), after having been allowed special dispensation following a 52 year ban on the chewing of the coca leaf.

The Bolivian President, Evo Morales - himself a former coca leaf farmer - famously chewed coca during his speech at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in 2009. He had criticised the decision in 1961 to ban the leaf, which is commonly chewed in many indigenous communities in Latin America, particularly the Andean regions of Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Colombia.

The tradition of chewing coca leaves has existed since 3000 B.C and has been used as a mild stimulant and has a sacred herbal medicine. Coca also helps to alleviate the feeling of hunger as well as being useful in combating altitude sickness.

In an op-ed published shortly afterwards in the New York Times, Morales pointed out the hypocrisy of ignoring other, more harmful plants while attempting to ban coca. Plants that produce caffeine and nicotine are not scheduled under the 1961 SCND whereas the coca leaf, which happens to include the cocaine alkaloid, has long been classed as illegal.

Only fifteen countries objected to Bolivia's re-entry to the SCND, including the US, Israel, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Russia and several European states. To block its re-inclusion, it would have required one-third (62) of the 184 UN member states to vote 'no'.


Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of cocaine after Colombia and Peru. It originally withdrew from the SCND in 2011 in protest of the classification of the coca leaf as an 'illegal drug'.