UN Committee gives coca a surprise gift

07 မတ်လ 2008
In the media
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Democracy Center
Yesterday a United Nations panel dealing with drug issues, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), issued a surprise recommendation, one that drew front-page headlines here in Bolivia today. The UN called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to make all uses of the coca leaf a criminal offense. That would include chewing leaves, drinking coca tea, or turning coca leaves into baking flour or toothpaste. Amidst an avalanche of global recommendations by the Board was this one, #217: "In addition [to the chewing of coca], coca leaf is used in Bolivia and Peru for the manufacture and distribution of mate de coca (coca tea). Such use is also not in line with the provisions of the 1961 Convention. The Board again calls on the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to consider amending their national legislation so as to abolish or prohibit activities that are contrary to the 1961 Convention, such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of mate de coca (coca tea) and other products containing coca alkaloids for domestic use and export." Reaction among those who follow the coca issue was incredulous and swift. Coca growers in Bolivia threatened protests. One key policy group, the Transnational Institute (TNI), declared, “The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness…Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?” That was my initial reaction as well. Really, I was quite excited about the chance to use the movie logo from “Dumb and Dumber” to go with my Blog post on the issue, a visual expression of my feelings toward the “arrest ‘em for drinking tea” recommendation. The Logic: A Treaty is a Treaty But then I thought about it and it dawned on me what a great gift the UN Board has made to the debate over the coca leaf and how it is handled under global law. The Board never argued that chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea was unhealthful or dangerous. No, the logic of the panel was just one of consistency. Since 1961 the coca leaf has been on a UN Convention list of harmful narcotics, such as heroin and cocaine. By international treaty, substances on the list are banned from global trade. The UN panel argues simply: A treaty is a treaty and domestic policies ought to reflect the same rules. As the UN Board’s chair told Bloomberg News yesterday, “If the provisions of the convention are being breached, the board in its wisdom, or lack of wisdom, is obligated to act.'' The problem is not an obscure UN board in Vienna making a decision based on blind legalism. The problem is that the coca leaf never belonged on the list to begin with. Coca does not become cocaine (which is on the list separately) until it goes through an elaborate and ugly processing with powerful chemicals. The miniscule narcotic hit one gets from a cup of coca tea is nothing compared to the hit one gets from a decently prepared cup of coffee (trust me, I do both). Is there really someone out there who thinks that it makes sense to legally treat a steaming cup of herbal coca tea in the same way we might handle a syringe of heroin? Sometimes Absurdity is the Greatest Teacher And this is the great gift, maybe even an intentional one from the Board. Its suggestion just demonstrates, in way far more effective than anyone in Bolivia could have, the true silliness of keeping coca and products like coca tea on the UN list. Consider this: The UN is formally suggesting prosecuting drinkers of an herbal tea served to visitors at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. Until recently, in fact, the Embassy officially recommended coca tea to U.S. visitors, to combat altitude sickness [The Embassy mysteriously took down that Web page after we posted a link to it on the Blog, dang!]. Truly, just for fun, imagine this scene (diplomatic immunity aside): Uniformed Bolivian soldiers surround the massive white U.S. Embassy in La Paz, They yell, “You are under arrest. We know you are drinking coca tea in there and here in Bolivia we respect international treaties. Come out with your tea bags held up above your heads.” Okay, perhaps that is just a whimsical exaggeration, but I like the image. Who on Earth in possession of a brain really thinks that it is intelligent policy for the government of Bolivia to actually ban the drinking of coca tea? For God’s sake, I know Christian conservative Republicans who visit here and drink it! And add to that the wisdom of chasing down a million or so Bolivian farmers and construction workers every day who have a wad of coca leaves in their mouths from dawn to dusk. The 1961 decision to put coca on the list next to heroin was made based on a discredited 1950 report, penned in the day when modernity was still defined by the weight of chrome car bumpers and some new fangled invention called the television. As TNI points out, the ancient study was long on the old school racism of the day and short on actual science. The report claimed, among other things, writes TNI, “that the habit of chewing could be held responsible for malnutrition and immoral behavior of the ‘Andean man.” Yes, the UN Board has, by making its recommendation outlawing coca tea, committed an act of genuine public service. It has placed bare on the table the logical consequences of a deeply illogical global policy. Advocates of a more sensible approach to coca, instead of trashing the Board and its recommendation, should hail it for its honesty and let it be the basis for a new question aimed at the UN drug establishment: Okay, now that we have gotten that silliness out of the way, can we have a real discussion about coca? That is a debate, roughly 47 years behind schedule. www.democracyctr.org