Ronald Zak/AP
Bolivia's President Evo Morales shows coca leaves during a news conference.

Bolivian President Morales Calls for Decriminalization of Coca

March 11, 2009 02:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Bolivian President Evo Morales asked the UN to remove the coca leaf from its banned drugs list, saying that it is part of his country’s culture and identity.

Morales Pushes for Legalization of Coca

In a speech Wednesday to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Bolivian President Evo Morales chewed a coca leaf and called on the delegates to decriminalize the leaf, which is the raw ingredient in cocaine. “If it’s a drug, then you should throw me in jail,” he said.

For centuries, coca has been used in Bolivia for its medicinal purposes and its ability to reduce hunger. It is used in religious ceremonies and used in products such as teas, cookies, soap, shampoo and toothpaste.

“Coca leaves aren’t cocaine, they don’t harm your health, don’t have any psychological effects and aren’t addictive,” said Morales.
It is sold legally in Bolivia, but cannot be exported without special permission. For example, the United States Department of Justice allows coca to be exported to U.S.-based company Stepan Chemicals, which removes the addictive chemicals and sells it to Coca-Cola, which uses coca for flavoring.

The coca leaf was categorized as a narcotic by the United Nations at the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which called for cultivation of the leaf to be abolished within 25 years. In 1988, Bolivia passed laws that set strict limits on coca farming and worked with the United States to eradicate illegal farms.

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Morales, himself a former coca farmer, took office in 2006 with plans to industrialize the production of coca. He called off the military’s eradication of plantations and built state-run factories to produce coca products. His policies have been condemned by the United States and expanded the rift between the two countries; late last year, he expelled the U.S. ambassador and all Drug Enforcement Agency workers, accusing them of spying.

With coca production increasing and the DEA no longer there to police the drug trade, many experts fear that the exportation of cocaine from Bolivia—the world’s third-largest cocaine producer behind Colombia and Peru—will increase dramatically. In the first two months of 2009, Bolivian narcotics operations have seized three times more cocaine than during the first two months of last year.

Though the rise may be a result of improved policing, many believe that it is indicative of increased cocaine production. Cristina Albertin, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bolivia, told Reuters, “What we’ve seen in the past years is that drug trafficking has spread in Bolivia … the processing of coca into drugs is taking place all over the country.”

Reference: Coca

The cultivation of coca leaves in the Andes region dates back to 2500–1800 B.C., according to the book “Cocaine the Legend.” It is lightly chewed to reduce the feelings of hunger and to alleviate “headaches, toothaches, intestinal cramps, etc.” It is also used topically for arthritis and broken bones.

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