Changing the Drug War Debate

When Evo Morales took the office of president of Bolivia on Sunday, it was notable not only as the end of a "Bolivian-style apartheid" but also for making Morales the world's No. 1 spokesman for the coca plant.

Morales, himself a former coca farmer, preached a hard line against cocaine traffickers, but at the same time he announced his intention to resist Washington's $100 million compulsion to stamp out coca farming in his grindingly poor Andean nation.

For millennia, Bolivia's indigenous groups have chewed and brewed coca leaves as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant. But the leaf's role as the central ingredient in cocaine has made it a primary enemy of America's war on drugs. The result: hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars, often in the form of helicopters and planes for aerial fumigation, which kills coca crops but also ravages Bolivians' health and environment.

Morales proposed to fight the cocaine traffickers, who send the drug to satisfy the North's desires, but also insisted that the coca leaf retake its rightful place in Bolivia's cultural life. "We say no to zero coca, but we are promoting zero cocaine," Morales was quoted by newswires last week. "We are going to try to interdict the narco-traffickers."

To grow legitimate markets, experts say Morales must shoot to change global attitudes that have long mingled the benign coca leaf with cocaine's devilish reputation. Drug policy experts say it could also mean taking on America's drug hysteria and revisiting the skewed science around which coca's prohibitionist regime was built some five decades ago. And Morales' plan also gives ammunition to U.S. critics who will use his coca policies to paint his socialist agenda in even more heretical hues.

The rise and fall of the global coca market

Ranking behind Colombia and Peru as the world's third-largest coca producer, Bolivia has some 65,500 acres under cultivation, according to U.S. estimates. In 2004, eradication programs, which began in the 1980s, were largely brought to a halt in one of Bolivia's two regions that can legally cultivate coca under national law. That deal was brokered in October 2004 between coca growers, led by Morales, and then-President Carlos Mesa. Now a European Union study is underway to mark how much coca is needed to meet traditional usage. In theory, the rest of the country's crop would be slated for eradication,

Besides ending eradication programs, Morales is widely expected to push for a revival of a global coca market.

"What Evo is proposing is very legitimate and credible from a scientific, historical and marketing perspective," said Ethan A. Nadelmann, executive director of the New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance. Nadelmann says Morales may help build an international market for coca-based products, similar to those that existed in the 19th century, when coca formed part of products such as tonics and wines, even Coca-Cola for a time. In December, an Indian tribe in Colombia began marketing a soft drink made from coca plants, and recent press reports from Bolivia suggests entrepreneurs are looking for early product niches, making it easy to see a future of coca-based medicines, gums or lozenges.

The case of coca is a fine example of just how well science can serve prejudice. Its production was criminalized by a 1961 international treaty that set a 25-year moratorium on legal coca consumption. That convention, stimulatingly entitled "The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961," prohibits coca cultivation, putting it currently at odds with Bolivia's national policy allowing a certain level of production. The convention, which also criminalizes cannabis, opium, morphine and heroin, is disliked by European countries pursuing heroin maintenance programs, and activists say Morales would do well to support any European efforts to amend that deal, as well as encourage other industrialized nations to do the same.

The Transnational Institute, a think tank based in the Netherlands, says a key scientific report that shaped coca's legal classification was flawed and needs updating to incorporate recent science. "The scientific basis for the classification of the coca leaf deserves a reevaluation by the institutions of the United Nations," states a TNI position paper. "Not only does the report not represent all the scientific studies relevant at the time, but in the half century since new evidence and knowledge has emerged in regard to traditional uses of coca, including beneficial." What's more, TNI analysts note that while an amendment to the international convention leaves room for countries to okay the traditional, licit use of coca, it prohibits licit cultivation. The underlying message is: You can take it if you've traditionally done so, but you can't grow it.

Science is on coca's side

Similar to the case of marijuana, there has long been scientific research to back claims of coca's health benefits. In 1981, Harvard-trained health guru Andrew Weil reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology that coca in leaf form does not produce toxicity or dependence and suggested its usefulness in treating gastrointestinal ailments and motion sickness. He reported that coca could aid weight-loss regimes and even act as a fast-acting antidepressant. And its power to regulate carbohydrate makes it a possible combatant for hypoglycemia and diabetes.

Such findings mean little to the prohibitionist sensibilities of Washington, which has long used the principal of conditionality to push its drug regime and suppress scientific findings it dislikes. Case in point: In 1995, the United States threatened to pull funds from the World Health Organization if it published the results of the world's largest study on cocaine, a 22-country study that also studied coca. In effect, say a range of drug policy advocates, the study was suppressed.

"The report essentially said what everyone seems to know and agree [on] with few exceptions," says Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who worked on the study but never saw a final copy. "The gist was that coca has been around for millennia and more or less used without abuse or problems by native people of Andes regions where it grows. And with respect to refined powdered cocaine, the study found that people mostly used it as a treat, with some abuse, with some people getting into trouble but most not."

TNI has managed to recoup parts of the suppressed study. Eric E. Sterling, president of the Maryland-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said Morales could link with European discontent over the 1961 convention and press to change its provisions on coca. In addition to Bolivia, several countries are carving out exceptions to the convention. The Netherlands has refused to enforce some cannabis bans, and Germany and Switzerland both have established heroin-maintenance programs. But those countries have not formally passed laws that contradict the convention. With more political capital at stake, one theory goes, Morales could take the lead in forcing a change. Sterling suggested America's faltering image abroad could thin Washington's political ability to stop efforts at reconfiguring the convention. Reinarman agreed Washington's weight may be diminished but thought it unlikely the convention would be amended.

"These countries are making lots of little exceptions, but it is difficult to overthrow the convention because the U.S. is the power behind the throne, and they will throw their weight around," he said. In Bolivia's case, throwing weight could mean denying $150 million in annual U.S. foreign and anti-drug aid to Bolivia or the country's request for $598 million in additional U.S. development assistance. With that in mind, some think Morales will tone down his hard rhetoric and try to balance U.S. wants with his domestic political needs.

"Morales must make clear to the U.S. that while he advocates coca, he will do what it takes to stop cocaine from being manufactured in Bolivia," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington. "Evo no doubt intends to curb coca eradication and to develop legal coca markets. But he should be able to keep the U.S. government happy by redoubling interdiction, taking down labs and kingpins, and improving control on roads, rivers and in the air."

Balancing those interests will be a tough line, and experts say Morales most surely will have to first satisfy his domestic constituents to survive politically. The first order of business may be keeping the the U.S. eradication program stopped in its tracks.

"I can't image him staying in power if he allows the U.S. to spray large swaths of that country with a poison that kills plants and to do so with no respect for public health," Reinarman said. "Imagine if the Bolivian air force were to spray large swaths of Kentucky and Virginia to eradicate tobacco, which has killed far more people than coca. We would respond with bombers."

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