A decade ago, when Bolivia exited from and then succeeded in rejoining the Single Convention with a reservation defending the traditional use of the coca leaf within Bolivia, the United States was staunchly opposed. President Barack Obama’s government spearheaded a campaign to block Bolivia’s reservation. In lodging its formal objection, the Obama Administration highlighted U.S. concerns that “Bolivia’s reservation is likely to lead to a greater supply of available coca, and as a result, more cocaine will be available for the global cocaine market, further fueling narcotics trafficking and related criminal activities in Bolivia and the countries along the cocaine trafficking route.” All G8 countries and several other European countries joined the U.S. government in its objection. Ultimately, the U.S.-assembled coalition fell far short of preventing Bolivia from re-acceding to the treaty, and since then both Mexico and the Netherlands have formally withdrawn their original objections. But the U.S. rationale for opposing Bolivia’s reservation back in 2012 will almost certainly re-emerge as debates ignite around the WHO’s critical review of coca. Especially in Europe, new concerns have emerged about rising cocaine consumption and increasing levels of violence associated with the illicit cocaine trade.
As President Arce emphasized in his June letter to UN Secretary-General Guterres, Bolivia’s “intention is not to diminish in any way the international control of coca cultivation and of the use of coca leaves for the illicit production of cocaine.” Even if the coca leaf were to be deleted entirely from the schedules of the Single Convention, the treaty contains specific articles that would still require Parties to take measures to prevent coca leaf from being used as a raw material in the illicit production of cocaine. Moreover, as the accompanying dossier argues, the “fear that a legal international retail market in coca tea, coca flour, ypadú/mambe, and other coca-based products could become a source of clandestine cocaine production, is completely misplaced.” The process of extraction is too complicated to even consider using a kilo of tea bags or mambe to extract a gram of cocaine, and as a matter of economics, such effort simply wouldn’t pay.
Thus far two countries—Colombia and Mexico, both of which are CND members—have publicly expressed support for the review process initiated by Bolivia. Any eventual recommendation by the WHO to reschedule the coca leaf, or to remove it entirely from the Single Convention, will need backing from a much larger group of countries in order to be approved by the CND. The CND itself has become an increasingly polarized space in recent years, and the coca review can be expected to trigger highly contentious debates.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently warned that the current drug control model “perpetuates existing patterns of discrimination, including against people of African descent, women and indigenous peoples,” calling to end the ‘war on drugs’ and to “focus on transformative change, crafting drug policies which are based on evidence [and] which put human rights at their centre.” An evidence-based review of the classification of the coca leaf is an important step toward transforming a treaty system that appears frozen in time. The review now getting underway provides an extraordinary opportunity to undo a grave historical injustice, resolve the undeniable conflict between the Single Convention and Indigenous rights, generate licit livelihood opportunities for coca growers, contribute to peacebuilding in the Andean region, and allow the rest of the world to partake in the coca leaf’s beneficial properties.