The coca leaf has been an important part of the culture of Andean indigenous people for thousands of years (at least 5,000 years, in fact). It improves metabolism at high altitude, relieves feelings of hunger and provides energy, and also serves as an integral part of religious and cultural ceremony.
In all that time, there has been no clinical evidence of toxicity and nobody has ever been admitted to drug treatment centers for being addicted to the coca leaf.
In 1950, the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf was prepared by a United Nations commission that visited Bolivia and Peru briefly and, despite noting that it wasn’t addictive, made some rather strong, racist, and completely unsupported claims, including that chewing the coca leaf “induces in the individual undesirable changes of an intellectual and moral character,” “reduces the economic yield of productive work, and therefore maintains a low economic standard of life.”
Naturally, this was the information that was used for the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which included not just cocaine, but the coca leaf. Article 49, paragraph 2 (e) states that:
coca leaf chewing must be abolished within twenty-five years from the coming into force of this Convention
It also allows a state joining the Convention to take 25 years to abolish coca leaf chewing. The convention was ratified in 1961 (50 years ago) and it was entered into force in Bolivia in 1976 (almost 35 years ago).
About a year and a half ago, I reported:
The Bolivian government has successfully commenced the formal process for amending the UNâ€™s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961) to eliminate the provision that would require all countries to prohibit coca leaf chewing within 25 years (for Bolivia, that was 2001).
Interesting amendment process. If no country objects within 18 months, then the amendment passes (a nice, if time consuming, way to do it â€“ countries need not get on the record to approve it). Countries most likely to object: United States and Sweden. If that happens, then thereâ€™s a conference to consider it.
The proposal has a very nice argument as to why this provision should be removed from the Single Convention.
Seems quite reasonable. It’s unenforceable. It’s not been enforced. New understanding shows that the reason to include coca leaf chewing at the time was racist. Plus, a study in 1995 found chewing coca leaves to be therapeutic with no negative health effects. The provision should just quietly go away, and if nobody objects within 18 months, it does. Let’s see… 18 months from 30th July 2009 would be… 30th January 2011. Hey, that’s just a couple of weeks away and nobody so far…
In two weeks time, on January 31, the deadline ends for countries to present objections to this change; without any objections the amendment would automatically enter into force. And at this very last moment, the United States formed a â€œfriends of the conventionâ€ group and announced it would object. Several other countries â€“ notably the Russian Federation, Japan, Colombia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark and Estonia â€“ have announced to present a formal objection as well. […]
It seems that those who do not regularly chew coca have run mad. All recent efforts to establish support in international fora resulted in proof for the point made: a cultural heritage that harms no person, merits protection and a legal base. Outcomes of a WHO study on coca/cocaine in 1995, determined that the â€œuse of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.â€ Moreover, the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights approved in September 2007 â€“ recently endorsed by the United States on December 16, 2010 â€“, promises to uphold and protect indigenous cultural practices.
The proposed amendment by Bolivia implies a mere symbolic change: no new country will be facing masses of coca chewing citizens. Not objecting to this amendment simply recognizes coca chewing is there to stay. Time has come to repair a historical error responsible for including the leaf amongst the most hazardous classified substances, causing severe consequences for the Andean region. It is a sad fact that our governments are representing us citizens in disregard of facts, led by mere ignorance and fear. Still there is a chance now to come to our senses.
Update: It appears that the news is potentially better than I thought after all… (Thanks, Gart – I missed that one).
According to the government of Bolivia, the only three countries that did file a formal objection to the amendment of Bolivia to abolish the ban on coca leaf chewing in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, withdrew their objections. […]
The United States has been lobbying with other countries to object to the Bolivian amendment but they have not filed a formal objection yet. According to Summaries of discussions of the EU Horizontal Working Party on Drugs, usually referred to as the â€œHorizontal Drug Groupâ€ (HDG) â€“ the committee for drug policy falling under the European Council â€“ the US prepared a â€œfriends of the conventionâ€ group to oppose the abolition of the ban on coca leaf chewing because in their opinion the request would significantly weaken the Convention.
The main reason that the US has not filed a formal objection yet seems to be that they are not sufficiently sure about the support for their objection from other countries, and want to avoid the impression that the US is leading on this. It seems they are playing a diplomatic game, trying to spread the message that many countries are going to submit an objection, and waiting for some others to do so first, so they can be seen as rather ‘joining’ the opposition from others than taking the lead.
Let’s hope the US finds no support.