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Coca is not Cocaine

By Thomas Grisaffi

On June 22nd under instruction from President Evo Morales (an ex-coca grower and leader of Bolivia’s powerful coca federation), Bolivia’s congress voted to withdraw from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The government’s decision to step out of the most important international legal framework for drug control generated unease in international government and policy circles. Opposition parties in Bolivia responded to the news by claiming that the government had caved into pressure from drug traffickers. Meanwhile The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime classified the decision as ‘worrying’. Contrary to these voices the Bolivian government has very good reasons to abandon the convention.

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs makes no distinction between cocaine and the raw ingredient used to manufacture it, coca leaf. Under the convention both are classified as illegal drugs. The 1961 UN convention therefore calls on signatory governments to eradicate all coca bushes (including those that grow wild) and to abolish the traditional practice of coca leaf chewing.

Coca is a perennial shrub native to the Andean region. Coca leaf cannot be considered to be the same thing as cocaine because it requires a significant amount of processing to reach that stage. To produce one kilo of cocaine paste (which is still only between 40-60% cocaine) requires between two to three hundred kilos of coca leaf and a variety of chemical precursors including sulfuric acid, petrol, and caustic soda.

In its unprocessed form coca leaf has been used for millennia by indigenous peoples in the Andean countries and, as they like to point out, it has caused them no harm whatsoever. Coca can be chewed or prepared as a tea and is consumed in order to suppress feelings of hunger, thirst and fatigue. During the two years of research I carried out in rural Bolivia, I witnessed farmers consume coca on a daily basis. The people who I spoke to swore by coca, they claimed that this mild stimulant gave them the strength they needed to work in the fields. They also shared coca leaves as a way to establish good relationships with one another.

In addition to coca’s nutritional benefits many Andeans consider that the leaf is sacred. For rural populations coca leaf acts as a mediator between human and supernatural worlds. Coca forms a vital component of rituals including monthly offerings to the Pachamama (an Andean earth deity) and special rites aimed at appeasing mountain gods. Coca is also essential for healing practices and is used to cure a broad range of ailments ranging from headaches to diabetes.

The justification for classifying coca as an illegal substance has its roots in a UN study that was published in 1950. This study has since been discredited as inaccurate and racist for its characterisation of coca chewing as a disgusting, backwards and dangerous habit. Subsequent research carried out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) contradicts the 1950 study. The WHO/UNICRI study comes out in favour of coca leaf, noting the positive therapeutic, nutritional and social functions associated with it. However, as a result of diplomatic pressure from the United States, the report was never published.

The UN convention on Narcotic Drugs was drafted in 1961, long before respect for indigenous rights had become a mainstream concern. Since then there has been a shift of opinion in multi-lateral organizations such as the World Bank and UN Agencies. Today Indigenous rights are viewed as human rights and there is a body of law to protect indigenous peoples’ knowledge and traditional cultural expressions. The criminalization of coca leaf clearly contradicts this goal.

Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution declares that the state has a duty to preserve and protect coca chewing as an ancestral practice. To this end Bolivia has called for the elimination of article 49 (which states, “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”) from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Despite support from the United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Bolivia’s initiative has not been met with success. In January 2011 eighteen countries, including all of those in the G-8, objected to the proposed amendment on the basis that coca is an illegal drug.

Given the intransigence of powerful governments it makes sense why Bolivia has decided to opt out of the 1961 convention. Bolivia is using this as leverage to have article 49 on coca chewing removed from the convention. The Bolivian government has indicated that if coca leaf is removed then it will return to the fold in 2012. In the meantime the government has remained committed to continue the fight against drug trafficking and to control the amount of land under coca cultivation. The 1961 convention should be bought up to date and demonstrate respect for indigenous cultures by abolishing article 49. In short, coca is not cocaine.

Posted on 19 July 2011.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Thomas Grisaffi.

Thomas Grisaffi is a Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, London School of Economics.