UN Urges Bolivia to Make Coca Chewing a Crime, Report Says
March 4, 2008 Bloomberg.com

By Joshua Goodman, Jgoodman19@bloomberg.net

March 4 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations called on Bolivia and Peru to criminalize the chewing of coca leaves, a practice used by Andean peasants for centuries.

The report by the UN agency charged with enforcing narcotics treaties also urges the governments "to establish as a criminal offense'' using the leaf to make tea, flour and other products. The report says consuming the leaves from the bushy Andes plant used to make cocaine plays a role "in the progression of drug dependence.''

The annual report by the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board, an update on drug control efforts worldwide, may anger the leaders of Andean nations where coca is grown, especially Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower who has called for the legalization of the leaf.

"In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca,'' said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. "To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity.''

The coca plant contains trace amounts, less than 1 percent, of the alkaloid that in large quantities can be used to make cocaine. Andean peasants chew it for its mild stimulant effect, which helps ward off hunger.

A 1961 UN treaty stipulates governments must gradually eliminate coca chewing and other traditional uses of the leaf as well as attempt to eradicate the plant. Trade in coca leaves is allowed only for scientific purposes or as a flavoring agent as long as the alkaloids are removed.

Narcotics Treaty
"Nobody doubts the medical value of coca, heroin or cocaine, just as nobody denies their illegality under the 1961 convention,'' Philip Emafo, the Nigerian president of the INCB, said in a telephone interview from Vienna. "If the provisions of the convention are being breached, the board in its wisdom, or lack of wisdom, is obligated to act.''

Referring to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ratified worldwide, the report calls on Peru and Bolivia -- the second and third largest cocaine producers in the world, after Colombia -- to "consider amending their national legislation so as to abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea.''

Emafo said the agency can recommend an embargo on the import and export of drugs for countries with serious drug policy breaches. No action against Peru and Bolivia has been discussed, he said.

Bolivian Law
Bolivia -- in violation of its treaty obligations -- currently allows the use of coca in its natural form.

Wade Davis, a Washington-based author and botanist who studied coca in Colombia for his 1996 book "One River,'' said coca's treatment as a narcotic as dangerous as heroin and cocaine in the UN convention is "absurd.''

"Coca is as vital to the Andes as the Eucharist is to Catholics,'' said Davis, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. "There's no evidence of toxicity or addiction in 4,000 years of use.''

Policy Consortium, a network of drug policy experts, said the ban on coca was based on outmoded science and reflects "harsh and narrow judgments that condemn countries that permit traditional coca use and the industrialization of coca.''

In a 2006 speech before the UN General Assembly, Morales lashed out at the criminalization of the coca leaf.

"This coca leaf represents Andean culture, it is a coca leaf that represents the environment and the hope of our peoples,'' Morales said, holding up the leaf.

Coca Cake
For his 80th birthday, Cuban President Fidel Castro received a cake baked with coca flour from Morales.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also a critic of the U.S.-backed policy of forced coca eradication, said on Jan. 11 that he chews coca daily. The Venezuelan leader is also paying for the construction of a factory in Bolivia to produce coca tea, flour and other natural products.

David Johnson, U.S. assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said the U.S. is concerned about Bolivia's stated goal to increase coca production for traditional uses from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares.

"We believe that the policy, as it's been articulated to me, is not consistent with Bolivia's obligations under international law,'' he said at a Washington press conference Feb. 29 to present the State Department's annual report on international anti-narcotic progress.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joshua Goodman in Bogota at Jgoodman19@bloomberg.net