Evo Morales: Let Me Chew My Coca Leaves
March 14, 2009, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Latin America | Tags: , , ,

President Morales holds up a coca leaf as he addresses the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York

In recent weeks, Bolivian President Evo Morales has become more vocal in his drive to change the international community’s stance vis-a-vis the legalization of coca, which serves as a vital part of the Bolivian social system.  Morales, the leader of the countries coca growers association, has championed the cause of coca and has sought to bring the issue in front of the international community. His goal is to take the coca leaf off of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.  Morales’ somewhat defiant overtures towards Washington have complicated relations between the two countries and both have in recent months ousted each others respective diplomats.

In its 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), the State Department lists Bolivia as one of the most important countries in the global narcotic industry.  While there is no connection between the Bolivian government and the traffickers, a point which the State Department leaves no uncertainty on, there is concern that Bolivia, by promoting licit coca growing, is complicit in the illict production of cocaine, which ultimately ends up in American streets.  According to State’s estimate:

The GOB faces significant challenges because its policies allow expansion of coca cultivation, limit eradication efforts, and loosen controls over the licit coca market.  We are concerned about the growing influence of Colombian and Mexican cartels and the possibility of a growing number of drug-related crimes in Bolivia.  We encourage the GOB to reverse its policies on expansion of coca cultivation.  We also encourage the GOB to expand eradication in the Yungas, redouble its efforts in the Chapare, eliminate new coca plantings, and enhance its efforts to interdict illegal drugs and precursors throughout Bolivia.  This effort should include the return of DEA to Bolivia.  The U.S. also encourages the GOB to exert strict controls over the licit coca market, close illegal markets and increase cooperation with neighboring countries in counternarcotics efforts.

In response, Morales and his MAS government believe that “it is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf.”  In this commentary piece published in today’s New York Times, Morales makes his case for the decriminalization of coca.

In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 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.” Bolivia signed the convention in 1976, during the brutal dictatorship of Col. Hugo Banzer, and the 25-year deadline expired in 2001.

So for the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean peoples.

Many plants have small quantities of various chemical compounds called alkaloids. One common alkaloid is caffeine, which is found in more than 50 varieties of plants, from coffee to cacao, and even in the flowers of orange and lemon trees. Excessive use of caffeine can cause nervousness, elevated pulse, insomnia and other unwanted effects.

Another common alkaloid is nicotine, found in the tobacco plant. Its consumption can lead to addiction, high blood pressure and cancer; smoking causes one in five deaths in the United States. Some alkaloids have important medicinal qualities. Quinine, for example, the first known treatment for malaria, was discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree.

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