This briefing offers some background on the issue to amend the UN Single Convention towards a more coherent and realistic stance on the ancient tradition of coca leaf chewing. The issue was raised by Bolivia and adopted at the July 2009 ECOSOC meeting. Noticing confusion amongst some countries about the motives and impact of such amendment, this briefing aims to shed some light on the case.
In 1995 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) announced in a press release the publication of the results of the largest global study on cocaine use ever undertaken.
After 40 years of defeat and failure, America's "war on drugs" is being buried in the same fashion as it was born – amid bloodshed, confusion, corruption and scandal. US agents are being pulled from South America; Washington is putting its narcotics policy under review, and a newly confident region is no longer prepared to swallow its fatal Prohibition error. Indeed, after the expenditure of billions of dollars and the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people, a suitable epitaph for America's longest "war" may well be the plan, in Bolivia, for every family to be given the right to grow coca in its own backyard.
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of opium and has an under-reported but growing heroin-use problem. Current drug control policies in Afghanistan are unrealistic, reflecting a need for immediate signs of hope rather than a serious analysis of the underlying causes and an effort to achieve long-term solutions.
The academic journal Nueva Sociedad recently released an issue to promote the debate in Latin America on drug policy reform. TNI contributed with the paper "Drug policy reform in practice: Experiences with alternatives in Europe and the US".
On July 30th the Bolivian proposal to amend the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs by deleting the obligation to abolish the chewingof coca leaf was on the ECOSOC agenda (UN Social and Economic Council). After informal negotiations, the 54 members of ECOSOC decided unanimously to pass the amendment proposal on to the Parties of the Convention for their consideration. They now have 18 months to express any objections or comments on the Bolivian request.
The Drug War has failed. After more than 20 years of tirelessly pushing for the same policy, the efforts have not been able to bring the expanding illicit drug markets under control and instead have led to an unmanageable crisis in the judicial and penitentiary systems, human rights violations, the consolidation of criminal networks and the marginalization of drug users who are pushed out of reach of health care services. For these reasons, some Latin American countries are starting to explore a more effective and honest drug policy.
In March 2009, Evo Morales sent his formal request to the Secretary General Bang Ki Moon to delete articles 49(c) and 49(e) of the 1961 UN Single Convention that explicitly mention that "coca leaf chewing must be abolished with twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention" (which happened in December 1964). The request will be discussed on Thursday, 30 July, at the annual meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Putting this request on the ECOSOC agenda is a required procedure for amendment proposals. It is under Agenda item 14 (d), Narcotic drugs, General Segment (see the Note of Secretary General).
On 12 June 2009, TNI submited a memorandum to the 'House of Commons Select Committee on the cocaine trade' to allow the coca leaf in its natural form on the UK market, as a mild stimulant and as an infusion. The leaf is now still classified along with cocaine and heroin as a Class A drug.
When we think of people like Pope Paul VI, the Queen of Spain or Britain’s Princess Anne, most of us do not think of them as criminals. But that is what they are, under the current international drug law. Their crime? They all sipped coca tea on their arrival to the Bolivian capital La Paz.
A similar version was published as an OpEd in El Tiempo, June 26, 2009
See also: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers 17, June 2009
The present issue of Drugs & Conflict intends to debunk and disentangle the most prominent myths surrounding the coca leaf. It aims to clear the air and help steer the debate towards a more evidence-based judgement of the issues.
When we think of people like Pope Paul VI, the Queen of Spain or Britain’s Princess Anne, most of us do not think of them as criminals. But that is what they are, under the current international drug law. Their crime? They all sipped coca tea on their arrival to the Bolivian capital La Paz. Bolivia is planning to submit a formal request to the UN to declassify coca as a narcotic drug, emphasizing in its arguments the traditional uses, such as the chewing of the leaf.
The attached summary report addresses the myths that surround the coca leaf and is presented to the Committee members in order to allow them to make an evidence-based judgement on its current legal status and on the potential usefulness of coca in its natural form, including in the UK context.
Coca farmers should be identified as drug traffickers / Coca farmers only grow coca to satisfy traditional indigenous uses
It is in the social realm that the attitudes surrounding coca sometimes find their most intransigent expressions, with extreme positions underpinned by deeply ingrained cultural prejudice. Some say "coca farmers should be identified as drug traffickers", others, "coca farmers only grow coca to satisfy traditional indigeous uses"Further reading: Coca Myths, Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers 17, June 2009
The use of coca is symptomatic of hunger and malnutrition / Coca is a solution to the world’s hunger problem
While for some people, “the use of coca is symptomatic of hunger and malnutrition”, others state the opposite saying that “coca is a solution to the world’s hunger problem”. It has long been common among superficial observers to confuse the use of coca with an inadequate diet, and thus to claim that coca is in some specific sense responsible for malnutrition among the Andean population. At the opposite extreme, there exists an increasingly vocal lobby, which defends the use of coca not so much as a stimulant, but as a food supplement, and sometimes engages in extravagant claims regarding coca’s dietary benefits.
Cocaine can easily be extracted from coca leaves / Coca leaves contain no cocaine
To some people, “cocaine can easily be extracted from coca leaves”, to others, "coca leaves contain no cocaine". The extreme positions in this discussion have an even longer and more ideologically charged genealogy than those in the coca and nutrition debate.
The use of coca produces a form of drug dependence / The use of coca will cure dependence on cocaine and crack
To some people, “the use of coca produces a form of drug dependence”, to others “the use of coca will cure dependence on cocaine and crack”. And, like a Peruvian expert added ironically in 1952, there is a third position, that of the members of the UN who maintain that it is not an addiction, but should be treated as such since it is a pernicious habit. The absence of scientific backing did not prevent the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence from ruling twice, in 1952 and 1953, that coca chewing should indeed be considered a form of “cocainism”.
Coca cultivation is devastating the rainforest / Coca is an ideal crop for poor soils in the tropics and will be cultivated everywhere once declared legal
Since at least the 1980s, there has been a consistent effort to link the growing of coca with widespread environmental degradation, baptized recently by the Colombian government as “ecocide”. Others state that "coca is an ideal crop for poor soils in the tropics".