Bolivian President Evo Morales pushed for legalizing the chewing of coca leaves during a 53-country United Nations narcotics control meeting on Monday in Vienna. A former cocalero and coca grower’s union leader, Morales held up a coca leaf during his address and argued that growing and chewing the crop are staples of Bolivia’s Andean culture.
In 1961, Bolivia’s military government ratified the U.N. Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that declared the coca leaf an illegal narcotic, along with cocaine, heroin opium and others substances. The Morales administration withdrew from the convention last year and yesterday the president called its ratification a “historic error,” and said the “absurd prohibition of coca chewing” is not acceptable in Bolivia. “The coca leaf is not cocaine. We have to get rid of this misconception,” he added.
Bolivia is willing to rejoin the convention only if member nations approve an amendment allowing traditional cultivation and consumption of coca leaves. But Yuri Fedotov, chief of UNODC, responded to Morales’ appeal by warning that “such kinds of initiatives in the long run may undermine” international consensus on drug control and “have a domino effect.”
Morales also used his time on the floor on Monday to call on developed nations to give Bolivia the tools to crack down on illegal cultivation intended for the manufacture of cocaine. Bolivia is the third-biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia and the president asked for helicopters and other technology to combat drug-trafficking. The U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said this month that Bolivia has “failed demonstrably to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements” over the last year.