This briefing paper analyses the reasons behind Bolivia’s proposal to remove from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs the obligation to abolish the practice of coca chewing and the opposing arguments that have been brought forward.
The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, yesterday asked inspectors of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) of the United Nations to support his petition to decriminalize coca leaf chewing or "akulliku" but acknowledged that he failed to convince everyone. The Board pointed out this year that Bolivia “addresses the coca-chewing issue in a manner that is not in line with that country’s obligations under the international drug control treaties.”
Today the Plurinational State of Bolivia can celebrate a rightful victory, as the country can become formally a party again to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but without being bound by its unjust and unrealistic requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.” This represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony.
The first day at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs was marked by the announcement of President Evo Morales of Bolivia that he would start the process to remove the coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention as well as the suspension of the paragraphs of that convention that prohibit the traditional chewing of coca leaf. Holding up a coca leaf in front of delegates at the UN summit on drugs he underlined his demand.
The Secretary-General has received a note verbale dated 12 March 2009 from the Permanent Mission of Bolivia to the United Nations, attached to which is a letter from the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, dated 12 March 2009, in which the Government of Bolivia proposes to amend article 49, paragraphs 1 (c) and 2 (e), of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, as amended by the Protocol amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 (see annex).
Bolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
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The cocaine base, or “pasta”, may be seen as a type of South American crack. Its obligatory method of administration is smoking. A primary condition of the “pasta” smoker is compulsive drug-search behavior and addiction to cocaine base destroys emotional and mental balance. Socio-economic maladjustment is the norm amongst “pasta” addicts. Since 1984 I have recommended the chewing of the coca leaf, between 100 to 200 grams of coca leaf per week for the treatment of cocaine dependence.
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Bolivia and the US set for more battles over the coca leaf as Evo Morales attempts to overturn legality of the indigenous plant. US diplomats are due to file a formal objection to Bolivia's attempt to amend a half-century-old UN ban, claiming it would promote the raw ingredient for cocaine and undermine the "war on drugs".
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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. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of human history, but sometimes we have the opportunity to correct them. It is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) have learned that the United States is moving to oppose, as soon as this week, Bolivia’s formal request to remove the obligation to ban the chewing of coca leaves— an indigenous practice dating back more than 2,000 years. TNI and WOLA strongly encourage countries to support Bolivia’s proposal, which is a legitimate request based on scientific evidence and respect for cultural and indigenous rights.
According to the government of Bolivia, the only three countries that did file a formal objection to the amendment of Bolivia to abolish the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, withdrew their objections.
The final count after closure of the January 31 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, comes 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.
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