U.S. Rejects Indigenous Rights in Favor of Failed War on Drugs; Strong-arms Other Countries to Follow Suit

Last week the United States formally objected to Bolivia’s request to the United Nations to allow the ancestral practice of coca leaf chewing. In doing so, it revealed the corruption, hypocrisy and futility of the global war on drugs, which it clearly values over the rights of indigenous peoples.


Bolivia’s proposal is modest.  It would strike two clauses from the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs, which require that coca chewing “be abolished within twenty-five years" after taking effect.  The existing system of cocaine prohibition would remain.

Since Bolivia made its proposal in March 2009, there has been minimal reaction from the international community.  The few countries that protested subsequently withdrew their objections; a few others, like Spain, Thailand and most nations of South America, have explicitly supported it; and the minor amendments were set to take effect automatically at month's end.

And rightly so. The coca leaf never should have been criminalized in the first place. Coca has been used ritually and medicinally for millennia by indigenous cultures of the Andes/Amazon region.  Archaeologists in Peru recently discovered fossil remains of chewed coca dating back 8,000 yearsResearch around the world, including a 1996 study by the World Health Organization (WHO), has concluded that coca has medical value and little potential for abuse. The nutritious leaf, containing only 1 percent of the alkaloid used to make cocaine, is typically chewed or brewed as tea, and often used to minimize the effects of living at very high altitudes.  For Bolivia, whose population is almost two-thirds indigenous, coca is part of everyday life.

But the Single Convention relied on bogus science and racist assumptions when it criminalized coca chewing. Bolivia persuasively argued as much before the international community.  NGOs urged countries not to object and instead to support Bolivia in correcting an historical error.  Most of the world agreed.

Except the U.S., which is now strong-arming others to follow its lead. Sweden has succumbed to U.S. pressure and filed its own objection.

The U.S. move has outraged human rights organizations, especially as it comes on the heels of President Obama's announcement that the U.S. would finally sign onto the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which protects “cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions”.

This prompted The Economist to write that the U.S. position "smacks of hypocrisy".  It is doubly hypocritical because the U.S. recognizes the legitimate cultural rights of its own native populations to use certain psychoactive plants.  The U.S. State Department even recommends coca for U.S. travelers visiting Bolivia to avoid altitude sickness, indicating it’s OK for Americans, but not Bolivians, to consume it.  

Experts have aptly called the U.S. posture “anachronistic” and “shameful”. It’s also futile. A half-century after the Convention's framing, coca chewing remains widespread.  In spite of the illegal status of the coca leaf, and despite billions of dollars spent on eradication programs, coca cultivation in the Andes has not declined, nor has cocaine production.  By contrast, Bolivia allows limited legal cultivation for traditional coca uses, but has not seen an increase in illegal cultivation.

From the standpoint of diplomacy and drug policy, it would be more productive for the U.S. to withdraw its objection and focus on reducing its own demand for cocaine. 

In the long run, coca could actually bolster alternative development programs for Andean farmers. The ban on coca production and export has led to a thriving illicit cocaine trade, while the market for traditional coca-based products -- which are low in potency, like coca tea, candies, cookies, soaps, toothpaste, and (more recently) soda pop -- has struggled to survive.  Lifting the ban on coca could provide indigenous populations with prosperous alternatives to selling their harvest to traffickers who will use it to make cocaine.

 And given how outdated the Convention is in regard to coca, perhaps the rest of it should be opened up for reform, so we can move towards a global drug policy that’s more effective and respects human rights.

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