Coca Leaves No Longer An Illegal Drug, Says UN

Well, this is something:

Traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia will no longer be considered illegal under a United Nations antidrug convention, the organization said Friday. Coca is the plant used to make cocaine, but many people in Bolivia, which has a majority indigenous population, chew it as a mild stimulant, a use that has continued since pre-Colombian times. Bolivians also use the plant as a tea, in medicines and in religious or social rituals.

Of course, the move was not without opposition:

The country’s condition for rejoining the convention met resistance from 15 countries, including the United States and the rest of the G8 group of industrial nations, according to UN spokeswoman Arancha Hinojal. But the objections received by the United Nations ahead of Thursday’s midnight deadline fell far short. In order to block Bolivia’s return to the convention a full third of its signatories – or 63 – needed to object.

This isn’t surprising, but is yet one more reminder of the myriad ways that the US’s (and other so-called “developed” countries’) attitudes towards the drug trade are absurdly simplistic and flawed, putting all the blame on the growth of a plant without considering the industrial processes needed to create a drug, the issues of demand in the US, the ties of drug lords to governments and presidents that received the US’s support, or the importance of treating addiction within its own borders, to say nothing of allowing large western banks make so much money laundering illegal drug money and face only small penalties for clearly aiding the drug trade just because they are allegedly “too big to jail.”

Quite simply, blaming the coca leaf for all the ills of the drug trade is counterproductive, and the UN’s decision to revoke its illegal status within the borders of Bolivia is an important, if small, step in dealing with the issue of coca and drugs in a more nuanced fashion. In its natural state, the coca leaf is about as dangerous as the coffee bean, and has very real historical, cultural, and religious significance to many people in the Andean highlands in Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. It’s really hard to see how legalizing it in Bolivia is going to lead to some explosion in cocaine production – after all, Bolivia is far behind either Peru or Colombia in terms of cocaine production, and the coca leaf is illegal in those countries still. This is not to say legalizing the leaf (and the subsequent market in the leaf) in Bolivia will lead to a reduction in cocaine use in the world – there is the whole demand side of the equation in the US and Europe, after all – but given that declaring it is illegal in one country has done nothing to stop the cocaine trade or cocaine use even while it has impinged upon indigenous cultural and ceremonial practices in South America, it’s hard to see the UN’s move as some disaster.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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