INCB’s 2011 Report Clings to Status Quo on Bolivian Coca Issue; Ignores Science and Indigenous Rights
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) 2011 Report singled out the Bolivian Government, stating that the country is presenting a “major challenge to the international drug control system.”[i] This conclusion is based on Bolivia’s 2011 denunciation of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol. The Bolivian government objected to the Convention’s obligating members to abolish coca chewing. After denouncing the Convention, Bolivia announced its intentions to reaccede to the Convention, but with a reservation: Bolivians would legally be allowed to chew coca leaves. Though they acknowledge that technically, Bolivia’s move is permitted, the INCB claims this decision could undermine the integrity of the Convention.[ii] The board’s hyperbolic stance mires the international conversation about the coca leaf in an antiquated framework that is both unscientific and discriminatory.
Bolivia’s history of objection to the Convention
Bolivia has campaigned for international recognition of the cultural tradition of chewing of the coca leaf since 1988. The Convention’s classification of the coca leaf as a Schedule I narcotic is objectionable to Bolivians for many reasons. The coca leaf has been used by people in the Andes for 7000 years; it has energetic and therapeutic uses, as well as ritual and symbolic importance.[iii] It helps people working in manual labor industries such as miners, fisherman and farmers to prolong their stamina and thus their productivity.[iv] Though the coca leaf only contains between .39 and .75 % of the cocaine alkaloid,[v] the Convention placed the leaf alongside cocaine and heroin, and required that all countries party to the Single Convention phase out practices like the chewing of coca leaves “within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention.”[vi] When Bolivia acceded to the Convention in 1976, it did so without reservation, although no legal restrictions existed on coca leaf production or consumption within its borders at that time.
Since then, however, Bolivia has explored the options for legalizing coca-chewing within the framework of the Convention. Bolivia joined forces with Peru to successfully negotiate a stipulation that eradication measures “should take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use” into the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988.[vii] Bolivia then acceded to the Convention with a reservation: the country did not agree with the document’s requiring countries “to adopt measures to establish … the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances [the coca leaf, according to the Single Convention] for personal consumption” as a criminal offence.[viii] In 1992, Bolivian President Jaime Paz Zamora initiated an unsuccessful campaign, known as “coca diplomacy,” to lift the United Nation’s export ban on coca products.[ix] In January of 2010, Bolivian President Evo Morales proposed an amendment to remove the obligation to abolish the practice of coca chewing from the Single Convention. Eighteen countries submitted objections to the amendment, thereby blocking it without further discussion. This widespread refusal to entertain the Bolivian proposal prompted Bolivia to denounce the Convention, and announce its intention to only reaccede with a reservation – a move the INCB deems a “major challenge to the international drug control system.”[x]
INCB irrationally targets coca production
In the same month that the Presidents of Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia announced their interest in a debate on legalizing drugs, the INCB issued a report calling Bolivia’s opposition to the Single Convention’s ban on coca chewing a “major challenge” that could compromise “the achievements of the last 100 years of drug control.”[xi] The INCB’s reaction to Bolivia’s announcement is overblown. Despite Bolivia’s recent campaigns to amend the Single Convention, the country has not stopped cooperating in the fight against illicit cultivation of coca or the production of cocaine. For example, the INCB report admits that there has been “no significant change in coca-bush cultivation” in Bolivia in 2010,[xii] and that Bolivia stands out as one of three South American countries to report an increase in coca seizures.[xiii] In addition, the report acknowledges that Bolivians have followed through on their commitment to eradicate the coca bush; the country’s Law #1008 mandates that Bolivia eradicate a minimum of 5,000 hectares a year and Bolivia has met that minimum from 2006 until 2009, surpassing it in 2010 with a total of 8,200 hectares eradicated.[xiv] Finally, the INCB concedes that “in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the number of destroyed maceration pits and laboratories for processing coca paste and manufacturing cocaine hydrochloride increased from 2009 to 2010”.[xv] Instead of pointing to Bolivia as the potential demise of drug control, the INCB could recognize Bolivia’s drug control contributions and treat the country’s attempts to register a specific dissent in a diplomatic fashion as a criticism worthy of consideration.
Bolivia singled out with nonsensical arguments
The INCB report goes on to discuss a range of drug control challenges, from illegal Internet pharmacies to an increase in the smuggling of cocaine into Oceania. Yet Bolivia’s decision to denounce the Single Convention and reaccede with a reservation is one of only three challenges—marginalized communities and access to internationally controlled substances used for medical purposes being the other two—specifically elaborated on in Board President Hamid Ghodse’s foreword.[xvi] Bolivia is the only country specifically singled out in the introduction. The Board justifies its concern by citing that in 2010, “coca leaf prices increased by 22 per cent in authorized markets and by 37 per cent in illicit markets in the country.”[xvii] That the prices for coca have increased, both in legal and illicit markets, suggests either a decrease in supply or an increase in demand. A decrease in supply would theoretically be a positive change in the board’s opinion, and should reflect well on the commitment of countries like Bolivia to eradicating coca destined for cocaine production. An increase in demand is a problem that the United States, still constituted the world’s largest market for cocaine in 2009,[xviii] and other consumer countries, such as Brazil, are better positioned to address than Bolivia. The board does not clarify how they interpret the increase in prices and what connection they see between this increase and Bolivia’s decision to reaccede to the Convention with reservations. They only suggest that if the Board were to condone Bolivia’s actions, other countries would follow Bolivia’s example, leading to the destruction of the Convention.
|The INCB is adamant that because decision-makers in 1961 thought chewing coca was in line with shooting heroin or snorting cocaine, those of us living in the 21st century should think so too. What sorts of mandates would US citizens have to live by if we were obligated to follow the rules of lawmakers back in the good ol’ days of 1961?
Bolivia’s proposal should be heard
Bolivia’s reservations about the Single Convention have both scientific and political merit. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 declares that the coca leaf and coca bush are to be considered “narcotic drugs.” This classification is based on the 1950 “Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf study.” Few today believe that the methodology and conclusions of this study would hold water in current scientific circles.[xix] The arbitrary nature of classifying coca leaf as a narcotic is highlighted by the facts that coca is the only example of a “biological substance from which a psychotropic substance can be obtained” to be classified as a Schedule I narcotic; others, such as ephedra (amphetamines) and sassafras bark (ecstasy) are exclued from the schedules.[xx] And in fact, the 1995 study conducted by WHO—unpublished due to pressure from the US—concluded 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.”[xxi]
Politically, the time to reconsider the scheduling of the coca leaf as a schedule 1 narcotic is long overdue. The INCB’s recent report implies that any amendment, or suggestion of an amendment to the Single Convention—which has already been amended in 1972 and 1988—would weaken the document. Yet as Thurgood Marshall once noted about the US Constitution, amendments can be necessary to strengthen and legitimize documents as they are carried forward through time: “Today’s Constitution is a realistic document of freedom only because of several corrective amendments. Those amendments speak to a sense of decency and fairness that I and other Blacks cherish.” The Single Convention was written forty-five years before Bolivia adopted its current constitution, a document that stems, in part, from an indigenous civil rights movement in Bolivia and sets Bolivia on a path towards decolonization by recognizing Bolivia’s diverse indigenous populations, their languages, and traditions. INCB’s most recent report fails to recognize progress in human rights and the scientific method since the 1961. World leaders must recognize the need to give Bolivia’s proposal for amendment a fair hearing that prioritizes modern scientific evidence and indigenous rights.
[i] International Narcotics Control Board, The Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2011, United Nations, New York, 2012. Foreword.
[v] “Variation of Alkaloid Content in Erthroxylum coca Leaves from Leaf Bud to Leaf Drop,” Emanuel L. Johnson and Stephen D. Emche. Annals of Botany. 1994, 73 (6): 645-650.
[x] International Narcotics Control Board, The Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2011, United Nations, New York, 2012. Foreword.
[xi] Ibid. Foreword.
[xii] International Narcotics Control Board, The Report of the International Narcotics Control Board for 2011, United Nations, New York, 2012. 65.
[xiii] Ibid. 70.
[xiv] Ibid. 69.
[xv] Ibid. 70.
[xvi] Ibid. Foreword.
[xvii] Ibid. 66.
[xviii] Ibid. 69.
[xix] Transnational Institute, “Coca yes, Cocaine No? Legal Options for the Coca Leaf,” Drugs and Conflict, Amsterdam, May 2006, 13.
[xx] Transnational Institute, “Lifting the ban on coca chewing: Bolivia’s proposal to amend the 1961 Single Convention,” Martin Jelsma, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 11, March 2011.