Evo Morales chews coca at UN drug summit

Bolivian President Evo Morales ate a coca leaf in front of delegates at the Vienna meeting of the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) March 12, to press his demand that the crop be removed from the UN’s list of prohibited drugs. “We’re for the coca leaf but against cocaine,” Morales said. “The coca leaf should no longer be vilified and criminalized!”

Calling the ban of the leaf a “major historical mistake,” Morales said: “Coca leaf consumption goes back to the year 3000 BC. How are you going to end its consumption in 25 years, knowing that it is not harmful?” This was a reference to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which established a list of internationally prohibited drugs and called for the chewing of the coca leaf to be abolished within 25 years.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Morales called for removing coca leaf from the Single Convention treaty. “Chewing coca leaves is a thousand-year-old practice of the indigenous communities in the Andes mountains that can’t and shouldn’t be prohibited,” Morales wrote, according to a copy of the letter e-mailed to Bloomberg news service by Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry. The coca policies “established by the UN in 1961 constitute a threat to the rights of indigenous communities.”

Morales, a former coca grower, crafted a new constitution for Bolivia which voters approved in January—for the first time protecting coca leaf as a cultural heritage of the country’s indigenous peoples and a “factor in social cohesion.”

At the CND, UN member states agreed to continue policies of prohibition and eradication for another ten years, although with a greater emphasis on prevention and “harm reduction.” The new document replaces a 1998 UN plan to significantly reduce drug abuse and trafficking within 10 years.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime acknowledged in a report issued on the eve of the summit that the worldwide drug trade had swelled to more than $300 billion annually and that anti-drug policies had indirectly created “a criminal market of macroeconomic size.” (Bloomberg, Reuters, AFP, AP, March 12)

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  1. “knowing that it’s not harmful”
    Why are the heavily financed and reportedly well-informed leaders of the world always so ignorant? President Morales makes a very good point that cocoa leaf consumption goes back to 3000 BC, but no one mentions the list of other banned substances which have been used–and often revered–for thousands of years. Cannabis sativa, or marihuana was likely the first domesticated crop and is quite literally the most useful plant known to man. Today, industrial hemp is necessary for establishing sustainable manufacturing processes for things like houses, cars, clothing, plastics, paper, fuel and food just to name a few. Beyond all this, cannabis has also been cultivated as medicine since at least 2,700 BC–which is how old a recently discovered Chinese shaman’s tomb was reported to be.
    The truth is that our War on Drugs also functions as a war on shamanism and any other form of spirituality which sees plants as somehow divine. This is an ugly religious crusade which has been going on for far too long. When will these people realize that they are destroying their own cultures and a way of life far superior to the infamous “american dream”?! Every study ever conducted on cannabis, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, DMT or any other substance traditionally used by shamans has proven them to be very effective medicine. Our science backs these claims up, probably because the modern scientific method was actually pioneered by shamans.
    We should be studying these plants and learning from cultures which managed to sustain themselves for many thousands of years, instead we burn the forests and kill anyone who would dare fight against our idiocy. We may never all agree about which drugs should be used for any particular ailment, but can’t we all agree that prohibition has been a horrific catastrophe? Making plants and chemicals illegal does not make those substances disappear, it only creates much bigger problems. If our illustrious rulers don’t realize this soon, there won’t be anything left for them to “rule” over.

  2. Evo makes the op-ed page
    From the New York Times op-ed page, March 14:

    Let Me Chew My Coca Leaves

    by Evo Morales Ayma

    La Paz, Bolivia — THIS week in Vienna, a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs took place that will help shape international antidrug efforts for the next 10 years. I attended the meeting to reaffirm Bolivia’s commitment to this struggle but also to call for the reversal of a mistake made 48 years ago.

    In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs placed the coca leaf in the same category with cocaine — thus promoting the false notion that the coca leaf is a narcotic — and ordered that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years from the coming into force of this convention.” Bolivia signed the convention in 1976, during the brutal dictatorship of Col. Hugo Banzer, and the 25-year deadline expired in 2001.

    So for the past eight years, the millions of us who maintain the traditional practice of chewing coca have been, according to the convention, criminals who violate international law. This is an unacceptable and absurd state of affairs for Bolivians and other Andean peoples.

    Many plants have small quantities of various chemical compounds called alkaloids. One common alkaloid is caffeine, which is found in more than 50 varieties of plants, from coffee to cacao, and even in the flowers of orange and lemon trees. Excessive use of caffeine can cause nervousness, elevated pulse, insomnia and other unwanted effects.

    Another common alkaloid is nicotine, found in the tobacco plant. Its consumption can lead to addiction, high blood pressure and cancer; smoking causes one in five deaths in the United States. Some alkaloids have important medicinal qualities. Quinine, for example, the first known treatment for malaria, was discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree.

    The coca leaf also has alkaloids; the one that concerns antidrug officials is the cocaine alkaloid, which amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of the leaf. But as the above examples show, that a plant, leaf or flower contains a minimal amount of alkaloids does not make it a narcotic. To be made into a narcotic, alkaloids must typically be extracted, concentrated and in many cases processed chemically. 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.

    Why is Bolivia so concerned with the coca leaf? Because it is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes.

    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. 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.

    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.

    Mistakes are an unavoidable part of human history, but sometimes we have the opportunity to correct them. It is time for the international community to reverse its misguided policy toward the coca leaf.

    Evo Morales Ayma is the president of Bolivia.