The David of Coca versus the Goliath of International Prohibition

The David of Coca versus the Goliath of International Prohibition

This week Bolivia’s Ambassador to the United Nations signaled his country’s withdrawal from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales instructed the withdrawal after months of lobbying at the UN in pursuit of an exclusion to the Convention for the criminalization of coca-leaf chewing, which is seen as an ancestral right by the Andean country’s indigenous peoples. Earlier in the year at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting in Vienna, the United States refused to permit Bolivia’s reclassification of the coca leaf. Other countries, such as Mexico, supported the US position, arguing that renegotiating one part of the treaty for coca leaf would put the whole system of international prohibition in jeopardy.

Bolivia’s move comes after a legislative process required by Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution. The Constitution stipulates renegotiation within four years of treaties that violate its provisions: the Bolivian law protects coca-leaf chewing as a right. The head of the Bolivian senate Rene Martinez said that “the use of the coca leaf has nothing to do with drugs.” Latin American countries whose peoples chew coca include Peru, Colombia, and Argentina.

This is the first time a UN member state has withdrawn from the Convention, a treaty which sets up universal prohibitions on many drugs, including cannabis. Bolivia said that it would rejoin at a later date if coca was reclassified. The Bolivian government now seeks to change international health treaties to exclude coca from drug schedules. Aside from its ancestral significance, coca leaf aids in high altitude sickness.