Bolivian Government seeks to amend United Nations coca legislation

On Thursday, the 30th July 2009 at the Substantive Session of the Economic and Social Council Bolivia began the formal process to amend legislation concerning coca leaf chewing.

The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that dates back to 1961 puts the coca leaf in the same category as Cocaine and states that ‘coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention’. The Convention was later signed by Bolivia in 1976 during the dictatorship of Colonel Hugo Banzer.

It is the Bolivian proposal’s intention to amend this legislation so that countries make their own decisions in regard to the Coca leaf. The Bolivian President Evo Morales had previously sent a letter supporting this proposal and stating that “Coca leaf chewing is one of the socio-cultural practices and rituals of the Andean indigenous peoples. It is closely linked to our history and cultural identity”.

In the letter he also affirms that Coca leaf chewing does not harm human health and helps to relieve hunger and altitude sickness.

Coca leaves have been consumed in Andean regions for centuries and traces of Coca have been found in mummies that date back 3000 years. Today Coca leaves are still widely used by the Andean peoples of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia but since 2001 when the convention expired, they have been breaking international law. Queen Sofia of Spain, Pope Paul VI and Princess Anne have also sipped Coca tea while on official visits to Bolivia.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president became popular after leading a coalition of Coca growers defending their right to grow the crop against US eradication efforts. He has frequently used the campaign slogan `Coca Yes, Cocaine No`. In many regions Coca is grown out of financial necessity and US eradication programs have not only proved inadequate in curbing the production of cocaine but the methods such as aerial crop spraying have had a negative on the environment and public health.

The Bolivian government wants to create a global market for Coca and argues that a legal market for products such as Coca-based tea, soft drinks and pharmaceuticals would reduce demand for cocaine. The trafficking of cocaine from South America to the illegal markets in the USA or Europe leaves a devastating toll on the countries that the drug passes through. In Mexico 6000 people were killed throughout 2008 due to cocaine trafficking and 2500 people have already been killed this year. The International Narcotics Control Board annual report has expressed increasing concern that West Africa is becoming a hub for cocaine trafficking, not only leading to increased cocaine abuse but a `serious threat to stability and development in that subregion, in particular in countries emerging from conflict and civil strife`.

The Transnational Institute has already submitted a memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Cocaine Trade in order to allow Coca leaf products to enter the UK market following the committee’s announcement that it would investigate cocaine use in order to reduce both supply and demand in the UK.

The Bolivian delegate to the Economic and Social Council stated that there were plans to hold a seminar on Coca leaf chewing in October 2009. In relation to the proposal the situation was left as follows:  if the proposed amendment is not rejected by any Party within eighteen months of 30th July 2009, it shall enter into force. If any rejection is forthcoming, however, a conference shall be called to consider the amendment.

Further reading

Bolivian proposal

Transnational Institute Report: Coca Myths