This debate centers in large part around the Andean countries of Bolivia and Peru, where coca leaf production and chewing is legal [with limits], but where cocaine production and use is illegal. This kind of policy is known by some as a “coca yes, cocaine no.” Andean northwestern Argentina also allows for coca chewing, and there is widespread support for allowing indigenous Andeans in Columbia and Ecuador to do the same. Most all of South America believes that Andean peoples have the right to continue their millennia-long tradition of coca use. Bolivia exists at the center of the international fight to legalize coca. President Evo Morales has lead this charge, in particular advocating that the UN Narcotics Commission change the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that forbids the production and use of coca. President Morales generated headlines by chewing coca while attending a meeting of the commission in 2009 and 2011. The debate on the topic surrounds a number of questions: Does coca qualify as a narcotic? Or, is it similarly mild to things like Caffeine and Nicotine? Does coca qualify as a narcotic simply by virtue of the ease by which cocaine can be extracted? Is coca addictive? Does it have health benefits (for energy, altitude sickness, or as a painkiller)? Does its traditional use by indigenous Andeans offer it special protections? Does disallowing it violate indigenous rights? Is legal coca detrimental to anti-cocaine efforts? These and other pros and cons are considered below.
“What is absurd about the 1961 convention is that it considers the coca leaf in its natural, unaltered state to be a narcotic. The paste or the concentrate that is extracted from the coca leaf, commonly known as cocaine, is indeed a narcotic, but the plant itself is not.”
Coca is distinct from cocaine. Coca is a natural leaf with very mild effects when chewed. Cocaine is a highly processed and concentrated drug using derivatives from coca.
“Unlike nicotine or caffeine, it causes no harm to human health nor addiction or altered state, and it is effective in the struggle against obesity, a major problem in many modern societies.”
“Because of its effects, coca would fit better into a category similar to that of caffeinebased plant stimulants — coffee, tea, guaraná and yerba mate. Because of the way it is assimilated, including the use of an alkaline reagent, its use would be more similar to the oriental custom of chewing the areca nut (areca catechu) wrapped in betel leaves (piper betle) and mixed with lime.”
The raw component parts of other drugs like meth are not banned. These components are a variety of household cleaning compounds. Similarly, it is wrong to ban coca because it can be turned into cocaine.
The World Health Organization found in 1995 that the “use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.”
Coca provides an energy boost for working or for combating fatigue and cold.
Chewed or consumed as tea, coca counters altitude sickness, aids digestion and quells hunger and fatigue.
Because coca helps suppress one’s appetite, it is also a means of combating overeating and obesity. Evo Morales made this argument in a NYTimes Op-Ed in 2009.
There is no evidence that one becomes chemically addicted to cocaine. Rather, cocaine chewing is a habit among Andeans.
WHO. In 1992 the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) undertook a ‘prereview’ of coca leaf at its 28th meeting. The 28th ECDD report concluded that, “the coca leaf is appropriately scheduled [as a narcotic] under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, since cocaine is readily extractable from the leaf.” This ease of extraction makes coca and cocaine inextricably linked. Therefore, because cocaine is defined as a narcotic, coca must also be defined in this way.
The active ingredient in coca leaf is the same as in cocaine. It’s just more concentrated in cocaine. Because the raw material of coca and its more potent relative cocaine are so closely aligned, it is impossible to disassociate the two. If one hopes to consider cocaine a narcotic and stop its spread, they must also forbid coca.
Wherever coca is legally produced, cocaine production thrives with greater success. The correlation is very clear. In Bolivia, coca eradication efforts in the 1980s and 90s helped reduce cocaine production. As Evo Morales took power and legalized coca production and consumption, however, cocaine production has shot up. This is despite his efforts to fight cocaine production. The bottom line is that legalizing coca makes it easier for cocaine producers to operate. This correlation cannot be ignored.
The decision to ban coca chewing fifty years ago was based on a 1950 report elaborated by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf with a mandate from ECOSOC: “We believe that the daily, inveterate use of coca leaves by chewing … is thoroughly noxious and therefore detrimental.”
Again, coca is unique from other substances like caffeine or nicotine in its capacity to be diverted to highly potent, dangerous, and damaging use in cocaine.
“The custom of chewing coca leaves has existed in the Andean region of South America since at least 3000 B.C. It helps mitigate the sensation of hunger, offers energy during long days of labor and helps counter altitude sickness.”
“Sacred: to communicate with the supernatural world and obtain its protection, especially with offerings to the Pachamama, the personification and spiritual form of the earth.”
“How can it be possible that the coca leaf, which represents our identity, which is ancestral, be penalized.”
Social: to maintain social cohesion and cooperation among members of the community, it is used in community ceremonies, as a “payment” for labor exchange and a social relations instrument.
Coca chewing far pre-dates cocaine use. It has existed for thousands of years. Cocaine has only a hundred year history. It is wrong, therefore, to ban coca use due to the modern difficulties with cocaine – it’s unfair to the legacy of coca.
Coca is an essential stimulant in daily life in the Andes, just as coffee is in the West. It is consumed by millions of indigenous people. Trying to ban it is just futile.
Latvia opposed Bolivia’s 2011 proposed amendment to the UN’s narcotics treaty with the following language: that because the purpose of Bolivia’s amendment is “to maintain a habit and socio-cultural practice, not a medical or scientific purpose,” coca leaf chewing still needs to be abolished.
Continuing a tradition is always a weak argument in defense of a policy. Traditions need to stand on their own merits, beyond the simple fact that people have done it in the past.
“While it is true that coca and cocaine are not the same, without cocaine coca would never have occupied such an important place in Andean culture.”
Evo Morales said in 2009 to a UN meeting of the Commission for Narcotic Drugs: “We’re for the coca leaf but against cocaine. The coca leaf should no longer be vilified and criminalized!”
“While it is true that cocaine cannot be produced without the coca leaf, and there is insufficient guarantee that cocaine would not be extracted from decriminalised and industrialized leaves, the debate cannot remain stuck on this point indefinitely. Ideally, there would be mechanisms and policies to allow the plant and its derivatives to co-exist without this necessarily signifying an increase in harmful consumption.”
If legalized, farmers will shift their production of coca from cocaine-purposed coca to open market coca production. Legal production is much more secure from government action.
Pasquale Quispe, 53, owner of a 7.4-acre Bolivian coca farm, explained to the New York Times in 2006: “Coca is our daily bread, what gives us work, what gives us our livelihood. In other countries, they say coca is drugs, but we don’t use drugs. It’s the gringos who use drugs.”
All South American countries have signed several declarations by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) that acknowledged that the chewing of coca leaves is an ancestral cultural expression that should be respected by the international community. +
In Bolivia, coca production is legal, but within strict limits. Only a certain amount of the stuff can be grown, and amounts exceeding these numbers are subject to eradication. Bolivia excepted $250,000 from the US in April of 2011, for example, for satellite monitoring of its coca fields. This helps ensure that coca is not excessively grown for use in cocaine; much more coca is required to produce cocaine than is required for natural consumption such as chewing. This is just one way in which coca production can be regulated to ensure against abuse in cocaine production.
“Today, millions of people chew coca in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina and Chile. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population.”
Pacífico Olivares, 49, a regional leader of coca farmers: “What blame do we have when we don’t make cocaine? They should chase down the people who make cocaine.”
The legality of coca production will not reduce the cocaine market. If the production of coca is allowed, which means that the production of the material of the drug is allowed, then the frequency and the amount of production of cocaine will surely increase. Therefore, the policy will not help to fight with drugs, but to help the drug sellers to easily sell cocaine.
The Vienna-based UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said exceptions for Bolivia would undermine international narcotics control efforts: “[Allowing coca] would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system, undoing the good work of governments over many years.”
Coca crop eradication has been the main pillar of anti-cocaine efforts around the world. It worked in Columbia and it worked in Bolivia for over twenty years leading up to Evo Morales’ administration. Legalizing coca production and chewing obviously runs completely counter to such successful eradication efforts.
A US official said in January of 2011: “there is evidence to suggest that a substantial percentage” of the increased coca production in Bolivia over the past several years, registered in U.N. surveys, “has indeed gone into the network and the marketplace for cocaine.”
“This idea that he’s going to go after traffickers but letting the coca bloom is tough seeing as workable,” according to a high-ranking US Congressional aide on anti-drug policy who was interviewed by the NY Times in 2006. “It’s a naïve, pie-in-the-sky approach to let the flower bloom but interdict the bouquet.”
The easy recoverability of cocaine from coca makes coca production an inherent hazard and liability for the production of cocaine.
“On a narrow mountain pass shadowed by craggy peaks, Lt. Col. Julio Cruz and his police unit stop vehicles leaving Yungas, checking the 50-pound sacks of coca leaves and making sure they are headed to the legal market. On some days, 500 vehicles carrying more than 150,000 pounds of coca pass through the checkpoint, Colonel Cruz said. But after this checkpoint, the police say, they have no way to know how much is diverted for illegal purposes. ‘The leaf comes out legally,’ Colonel Cruz said. ‘But once out, it goes to labs for cocaine. We cannot escort every truck to market.'”