Coca leaf: Myths and Reality A beginner's guide to Coca

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Many myths surround coca. Every day press accounts around the world use the word coca in their headlines, when in fact they refer to cocaine. TNI's Drugs and Democracy Team exposes the myths and reality surrounding the coca leaf.

About coca leaf: myths and reality

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  1. What is coca?
  2. What is its relationship to cocaine?
  3. Why is the coca leaf banned?
  4. Does the 1961 convention still ban any use of coca?
  5. Why should coca be removed from the UN list of prohibited drugs?
  6. Where is coca grown?
  7. How much do coca producers benefit from the drugs trade?
  8. What methods have been used to tackle the cocaine problem?
  9. Why is cocaine and drugs eradication not working?
  10. What other ways are there to tackle cocaine use?
  11. What is TNI doing on the issue of Coca?

Related primers
Human Rights and Drug Policy
Fact Sheet: Coca leaf and the UN Drugs Conventions
The UN Drug Control Conventions


1. What is coca?

Coca is a plant with a complex array of mineral nutrients, essential oils, and varied compounds with greater or lesser pharmacological effects – one of which happens to be the alkaloid cocaine, which in its concentrated, synthesized form is a stimulant with possible addictive properties.

The coca leaf has been chewed and brewed for tea traditionally for centuries among its indigenous peoples in the Andean region – and does not cause any harm and is beneficial to human health.

The traditional method of chewing coca leaf, called acullico, consists of keeping a saliva-soaked ball of coca leaves in the mouth together with an alkaline substance that assists in extracting cocaine from the leaves.

When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It helps overcome altitude sickness. Coca chewing and drinking of coca tea is carried out daily by millions of people in the Andes without problems, and is considered sacred within indigenous cultures. Coca tea is widely used, even outside the Andean Amazon region. Coca has an established use spread among all social classes, in two Northern provinces of Argentina. There is an increasing use of coca flour as a food supplement.

Because of its stimulant effect coca leaf was originally used in the soft drink Coca Cola. In 1903 it was removed and a decocainized coca extract is one of the flavouring ingredients.

  • Further reading: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers Nr. 17, June 2009

2.  What is its relationship to cocaine?

While the coca leaf in its natural form is a harmless and mild stimulant comparable to coffee, there is no doubt that cocaine can be extracted from the coca leaf. Without coca there would be no cocaine. The 'ready extractability' of cocaine from coca leaves is currently the major argument to justify the current illegal status of the leaf in the 1961 Single Convention. The cocaine alkaloid content in coca leaf ranges between 0,5 and 1,0 percent.

Cocaine, was isolated about 1860 and was synthesized to be used in manufacturing popular patent medicines, beverages and "tonics" until the early years of the 20th century. Concern about cocaine use began in many countries in the 1910s and 1920s, centred on dependence on the drug and subsequent "moral ruin", particularly among the young. Laws restricting the availability of cocaine saw a drop in consumption in most of the countries surveyed from the 1920s until the 1960s.

Particularly worrying is the use of smokable cocaine base paste (PBC, paco, bazuco or crack in Latin America), as distinct from free-base and crack cocaine that is produced from cocaine in the United States and Europe. Smokable cocaine base paste is harmful and highly addictive. When sharing homemade pipes, which is often part of the crack use ritual, crack users get sores on their lips and gums and are susceptible to diseases such as herpes, tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

3. Why is the coca leaf banned?

In 1961 the coca leaf was listed on Schedule I of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs together with cocaine and heroin, with a strict control level on medical and scientific use.

The inclusion of coca leaf in Schedule I was done with a dual purpose: to phase out coca chewing and to prevent the manufacture of cocaine. The Single Convention mandated to destroy coca bush if illegally cultivated (Article 26) and that coca leaf chewing must be abolished within a 25-year period (Article 49) - i.e. by December 1989, 25 years after the coming into force of the treaty.

The rationale for including the coca leaf in the 1961 Single Convention is mainly rooted in a report by the ECOSOC Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf in 1950, after a brief visit to Bolivia and Peru in 1949.

It concluded that the effects of chewing coca leaves were negative, even though it “does not at present appear that the chewing of the coca leaf can be regarded as a drug addiction in the medical sense”. The WHO expert Committee on Drug Dependence later withdrew this argument, labeling coca use as a form of cocainism.

The ECOSOC report was sharply criticised for the makeup of its researchers, its arbitrariness, poor methodology, lack of precision and racist connotations. Nowadays, a similar study would never pass the scrutiny and critical review to which scientific studies are routinely subjected.

4. Does the 1961 Convention still ban any use of coca?

In an attempt to obtain legal recognition for traditional use, Peru and Bolivia negotiated paragraph 2 of Article 14 into the 1988 Convention, stipulating that measures to eradicate illicit cultivation and illicit demand "should take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use."

In 1994 the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) – the monitoring body for the implementation of the UN international drug control conventions – mentioned that drinking of coca tea "which is considered harmless and legal in several countries in South America, is an illegal activity under the provisions of both the 1961 Convention and the 1988 Convention, though that was not the intention of the plenipotentiary conferences that adopted those conventions."

Nevertheless, in their 2007 annual report the INCB retracted on its earlier position and called on countries to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea."

5. Why should coca be removed from the UN list of prohibited drugs?

The inclusion of coca has caused much harm to the Andean region and a historical correction is long overdue. The 1961 Single Convention enshrined the traditional Western view, which equates coca with cocaine, and treats both in exactly the same way. A distinction needs to be made.

There should be space to find a more culturally sensitive approach to plants with psychoactive or mildly stimulant properties, and to distinguish more between problematic, recreational and traditional uses.

The provisions in the Single Convention are clearly at odds with the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights approved in 2007, which promises to uphold and protect indigenous cultural practices.

To avoid any uncertainty that cocaine production would remain under strict control, it would be sufficient to include ‘concentrate of coca leaf’ (as a generic term for coca paste or cocaine base) in Schedule I, replacing the coca leaf.

In March 2009, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, sent a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, requesting the suspension of the paragraphs 1c and 2e of Article 49 of 1961 UN Single Convention that prohibit the chewing of coca leaf. He also announced that he would start the process to remove the coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention.

On July 30, 2009, the Bolivian proposal to amend the 1961 Single Convention by deleting the obligation to abolish the chewing of coca leaf was on the ECOSOC agenda (UN Social and Economic Council). Parties have 18 months to express objections or comments on the Bolivian request, until January 31, 2011.

From Bolivia’s point of view, the international community holds in its hands a historic opportunity to correct a misconception regarding coca leaf chewing by eliminating both paragraphs of the Single Convention. This action will restore the dignity and lawful right to the people that consume coca leaf for traditional and medicinal purposes to legally exercise this cultural and harmless practice.

The final count after closure of the January 31 deadline to file objections to the Bolivian amendment  came to 17 objections: the US, UK, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Russian Federation, Japan, Singapore, Slovakia, Estonia, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Latvia, Malaysia and Mexico. That means that only 17 of the 184 countries that are Party to the treaty (as amended by the 1972 Protocol) have filed an objection. We call on them to still reconsider and withdraw their objection before the issue appears on the UN agenda for a decision.

6. Where is coca grown?

Coca is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes, or the highlands depending on the species grown, in particular in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

However, coca is a relatively easy plant to grow. In the late 19th century, colonial powers replanted coca outside its natural habitat. There was significant coca cultivation on the island of Java (at the time part of the Dutch East-Indies, currently Indonesia) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), as well as Formosa (at the time a Japanese protectorate, currently Taiwan). In the 1920s Java was the major producer of coca in the world.

Coca could easily escape the Andes for other tropical regions if enough pressure to eradicate the plant is applied. Occasionally rumours crop up that coca is grown in the Congo, but there has been no definitive confirmation of its diversion to other continents.

7. How much do coca producers benefit from the drugs trade?

For cocaine the cost of production and refining in the source countries is only one to two per cent of retail price in developing or transitional countries. The overwhelming majority of those involved in the drug trade make very modest incomes. A few individuals in the trafficking, smuggling and wholesale sector make great fortunes but that accounts for a small share of the total income.

8. What methods have been used to tackle the cocaine problem?

a) Forced eradication

The main strategy to curb cocaine use is to decrease demand at home and supply from abroad. Since the 1980s aggressive strategies have been applied to eradicate coca cultivation in the Andean region – mainly instigated by the United States.

In Peru and Bolivia manual forced eradication has lead to clashes between coca-producers (cocaleros) and military, resulting in deaths and human right violations. Colombia is the country where forced eradication of illicit cultivation of coca is executed in the most aggressive way by aerial spraying with herbicides (fumigation).

Aerial fumigation sets in motion a destructive vicious circle of chemical pollution, livelihood destruction, migration into even more vulnerable areas, deforestation, displacement and expansion of the areas of illicit crop cultivation, which then are again fumigated, etc. This leads to erosion of state legitimacy, violation of human rights and increased peasant support for guerrilla movements. This vicious circle urgently needs to be broken, in defence of the peasants whose livelihoods are destroyed, to preserve the environment and to improve prospects for conflict resolution.

b) Alternative development

Another strategy is to provide coca-growing peasant with alternative development projects, substituting coca with other viable crops. The record of success, however, is a questionable one. The major impediment has been the issues of ‘conditionality’ and ‘sequencing’. Conditionality refers to making alternative development assistance conditional on prior eradication of coca crops. Sequencing refers to the right sequence of interventions – e.g. ensure that eradication measures do not take place unless small-farmer households have adopted viable and sustainable livelihoods.

TNI advocates to make development assistance unconditional on reductions in illicit coca cultivation, and to ensure that eradication is not undertaken until small-farmer households have adopted viable and sustainable livelihoods and that interventions are properly sequenced. Producers’ organizations should be recognized, should take part in debates and decision making at all levels, with their own governments, donors and the UN.

c) Bolivia: voluntary eradication

With the election of the former coca grower Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, the government changed policies. Bolivian law now permits a certain amount of coca bush cultivation to satisfy demand for traditional uses.

Affiliated members to coca peasant unions are allowed to grow a small plot, known as a “cato” (0.16 hectare), to sustain their livelihood. This policy has pacified the coca-growing region, which was formerly overshadowed by violent confrontations and human right abuses.

Excess cultivation, which is considered to be for cocaine production, will be eradicated. However, conflicts still occur over designation of traditional cultivation areas and eradication campaigns.

9. Why is cocaine and drugs eradication not working?

The period of 25 years as deadline for the ultimate extinction coca set in 1961 Single Convention has clearly not been met. In 1998, at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS), ignoring decades of lack of success in addressing the issue of illicit crops, set the year 2008 as yet another deadline by which to eliminate or significantly reduce coca, opium and cannabis. That target has not been met either.

A Report on Global Illicit Drugs Markets 1998-2007, commissioned by the European Commission, found no evidence that the global drug problem has been reduced. The global number of users of cocaine expanded over the period. Wholesale and retail prices show a downward trend while purity is rising, which means there is no shortage on the market.

The basic presumption underlying forced eradication is that one can intervene in the workings of the illicit market, and substantially alter the demand-supply equation by simply cutting down the latter. On a purely hypothetical level this presumption holds some truth: if there is less available, less can be consumed. In reality, however, supply restores itself as long as there are places to go to and people willing to grow it – the so-called balloon effect, describing the tenden­­cy of cultivation to move to new areas in response to local eradication campaigns (when squee­zing one part of a latex balloon, the balloon will bulge out elsewhere).

In the case of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, the Andean and Amazon regions are an inexhaustible potential growing area, and there are dramatic numbers of impoverished and internally displaced people desperate enough to do anything to survive.

There is an astonishing lack of sound argumentation about the consequences and impact of policy interventions on the illicit market. If price and purity developments are a useful indicator of drug availability, there is no data to suggest that eradication efforts and the many seizures of shipments have ever reduced  availability on the consumption markets. The control efforts seem, rather, to have contributed to increased production to balance the losses.

10. What other ways are there to tackle cocaine use?

Cocaine-related problems should be kept in perspective. Use of cocaine leads to feelings of enhanced energy and may lead to greater stamina, confidence and creativity.

Health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use. Cocaine-related problems are more common for intensive, high-dosage users and either unknown or very rare for occasional, low-dosage users.

Cocaine use should be treated by providing correct information on its health effects and addictive qualities, not by incarcerating users. First and foremost, an evidence-based health based approach should be given priority over law enforcement. Comprehensive treatment strategies should be available at all times.

A clear distinction needs to be made between recreational use and problematic use of cocaine. Prevention, treatment and health care measures should focus on problematic use.

Harm reduction measures should be developed according to local circumstances and applied to the most problematic users, particularly those using smokable cocaine base paste (PBC, paco, bazuco or crack in Latin America), which is harmful and highly addictive. When sharing homemade pipes, which is often part of the crack use ritual, crack users get sores on their lips and gums and are susceptible to diseases such as herpes, tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.

Harm reduction measures could include dispensing condoms, pipes, pipe stems, tissues, vaseline and lip balm to counter infections and sexually transmitted illnesses, and should provide information about preventing unsafe crack smoking habits. Comprehensive strategies with community participation should create mechanisms for social inclusion.

A possible strategy is to set up user rooms with medical supervision, including the introduction of marijuana substitution treatment, to ease withdrawal symptoms. These strategies, combined with social projects for homeless people, could help reduce the high mortality rate among crack users and the violence associated with use and dealing.

11. What is TNI doing on the issue of Coca?

  • TNI supports efforts to have a more modern, up-to-date and evidence based assessment of the issue.
  • TNI supports the Bolivia government in its efforts to unschedule the coca leaf and the suspension of the provisions that prohibit the traditional chewing of coca leaf.
  • TNI raises the issue at the relevant policy making levels, such as the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).
  • TNI criticizes the views of the INCB that urges Bolivia and Peru to abolish chewing of coca leaf.
  • TNI distributes relevant documentation on the issue that is hard to find or has been suppressed.
  • TNI publishes reports and briefings promoting the unscheduling of the coca leaf, and against the negative consequences of forced eradication, fumigation in particular.

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