We don’t ban beer and spirits because some folk abuse alcohol. Yet as part of its bid to stamp out illicit cocaine consumption, the United Nations drug watchdog is telling millions of indigenous South Americans to ditch their millennia-old coca-chewing and coca tea-making traditions — and calling on their governments to criminalize the activities.
Bolivian officials at a conference on illegal drugs in Vienna are planning to ask the UN to remove the coca plant from its list of dangerous drugs. The UN's International Narcotics Control Board has called on Bolivia to ban coca chewing, and the use of the plant in products such as tea. Bolivia says such a ban would be an attack on its culture.
The Bolivian delegation was the first to issue what it called an "energetic protest" against the INCB's recommendations during the agency's annual meeting this week in Vienna. It also put forward a proposal to remove coca from the U.N.'s narcotics list. That's not likely to happen. The big question is whether the U.N. will adopt the INCB proposal — which would essentially leave Bolivia and Peru in breach of international law if they continue to allow coca's non-narcotic use and commercialization. That in turn could result in the U.N. calling for commercial or other embargoes against them.
President Barack Obama should recognize traditional uses of the coca leaf because not all production becomes cocaine, Bolivian President Evo Morales said. Morales, a former coca farmer, also called on participants at a United Nations drug policy meeting in Vienna to lift a ban on coca for some uses.
Recently, the UNODC has begun to take notice of the impact of its counternarcotics work on human rights. Antonio Maria Costa, the current executive director, has set out a series of recommendations for internal reform intended to improve the agency's human rights performance. This leadership on human rights is very welcome, and much needed, but it may already be under threat. Costa leaves his post at the end of July. Unfortunately, the current frontrunner for the role of UN drug tsar is the candidate being pushed by the Russian government.
I spent a week over the summer lecturing in New Zealand where I had the chance to speak with a number of politicians, lawyers and health professionals who were engaging in a review of their drug and alcohol laws under the leadership of their Law Commission. This independent body has made sensible recommendations that would reduce drug and alcohol related harms by providing more just laws but is experiencing a similar stonewall response from their government as we have from ours in the UK.
(See also: Drug Law Reform: Lessons from the New Zealand Experience, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 8, August 2010)
In 2009, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, sent a letter to the General Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, in which the Government of Bolivia proposed to amend article 49 paragraphs 1 c) and 2 e) of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. 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.
Spain will not put forward any objection to the Bolivian proposal to remove the obligation to abolish coca chewing from the 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs. Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said that “Spain has from the very beginning shown its understanding for Bolivia's position” and has “demonstrated this in various fora at European and international level.” Other European countries, such as France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, are considering submitting formal objections. Because Spain will not object and several other EU countries tend more to the Spanish position, a common European Union position will not be possible. Read the press release of Bolivian embassy in Madrid.
The United States’ State Department’s website recommends coca tea for altitude sickness, and its La Paz embassy has been known to serve it to visitors. The UN’s declaration on indigenous peoples, which the United States endorsed last month, guarantees the protection of “cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions”.
The constraint on fresh thinking was on shameful display this week. A UN convention, reaffirmed in 2009, imposes a blanket prohibition on drugs. This includes even the traditional use of coca leaves by Andean Indians for chewing and tea. This ban has never been enforced and in 2009 Bolivia asked the UN to lift it—though not restrictions on coca cultivation for cocaine. With a deadline of the end of this month, America has lodged an objection and Britain looks poised to follow (see article). Traditional uses of coca are not addictive and are as much part of Andean culture as a cuppa is in Britain or beer in Texas. One reason for objecting seems to be that approval might open up a wider debate about legalising drugs.
Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is on a European tour in a bid to drum up support for taking coca off a UN treaty on banned drugs. Spanish foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez told Mr Choquehuanca in Madrid that she "understood" Bolivia's demand and would try to mediate with other European countries thought to be considering an objection. Spain has already given its support to the Bolivian campaign. The US sent a letter to the United Nations saying it was opposed to the move.
Most Americans believe that their country’s forty-year “war on drugs” has failed. Yet, despite the costs and growing opposition to US antinarcotics strategy across Latin America, the US debate on drug policy remains muted. It is time now to end the silent tolerance of ineffective, socially harmful laws, institutions, and policies, and usher in a serious national discussion of how to reform US drug control strategies.
Bolivians chewed coca leaves in demonstrations around the country Wednesday to push for a change in a 1961 UN convention to remove a ban on a practice that has been part of indigenous cultures here for millennia. Protesters gathered outside the US embassy in La Paz to chew the leaf as part of a day of demonstrations around the country celebrating the coca plant and demanding that the UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs be amended.
Bolivia would continue its campaign to remove from a United Nations convention a ban on coca leaf chewing and take its case to the Economic and Social Council, if necessary, Pablo Solón, the country’s Permanent Representative said today at a Headquarters press conference.
Today is the deadline for countries to submit objections to Bolivia’s proposed amendment to remove the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. As far as we know, six countries have formally notified the UN that they reject Bolivia’s amendment: the United States (January 19), Sweden (Jan 20), the United Kingdom (Jan 21), Canada (Jan 26), Denmark (Jan 28) and Germany (Jan 28). Some other European countries may add their objections today.
After the closure of the January 31, 2011, deadline to file objections to the Bolivian amendment to remove the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 18 objections were submitted. Although not required, four countries explicitly submitted their support: Spain, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica. Egypt, Macedonia and Colombia withdrew their objections.
Today the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its annual report. I’ve been following the Board for many, many years now, have often criticized its narrow interpretation of the treaties, have questioned the validity of its usually negative comments about any policy changes in the direction of harm reduction or decriminalization, and have warned repeatedly about its tendency to overstep its clearly defined mandate.
The International Narcotics Control Board yesterday presented its annual report for 2010. Every year the Board selects a thematic issue of focus, dedicating its opening chapter to that issue. This year it is corruption. In an earlier blog post we asked whether the INCB would have the impartiality to be able to look at the drug control system itself, and its role in the generation of corruption, as the UNODC had done in 2008. The answer is no. At no point is the international criminal market in drugs recognised as a creation of drug control.