Bolivia to Rejoin UN Drugs Treaty With Reservations

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Bolivia will rejoin the United Nations drugs convention with the caveat that the consumption of coca leaves will be legal within the country, a small step towards legal recognition of the difference between coca and cocaine.

President Evo Morales pulled Bolivia out of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 2011, after his unsuccessful campaign to amend a Convention article that stated “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.”

The Bolivian government then announced its intention to pressure the UN to pass a “reservation,” a more straightforward procedure than changing the articles of the Convention.

The reservation that facilitated Bolivia’s return states it “reserves the right to allow in its territory: traditional coca leaf chewing; the consumption and use of the coca leaf in its natural state for cultural and medicinal purposes; its use in infusions; and also the cultivation, trade and possession of the coca leaf to the extent necessary for these licit purposes,” the AP reported.

Bolivia’s return was resisted by 15 countries led by the US and the rest of the G8 nations. However, in order to block the move, a third of the Convention’s signatories, or 63 nations, were required.

Morales, a former leader of Bolivia’s powerful coca growers union, has long campaigned for a legal distinction between coca and cocaine. In the 2009 Bolivian constitution promoted by the Morales government, coca is called a “cultural heritage, a renewable natural resource,” which helps maintain “Bolivian social cohesion.”

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The UN caveat is a personal victory for Morales. Since assuming the presidency in 2006, he has been trying to balance the needs of his core constituency of indigenous Bolivians and coca growers with the need to appear tough on drugs internationally. 

But even with Bolivia’s return to the international fold, the country still faces challenges on the ground in terms of battling transnational drug trafficking. There is already a sizeable amount of legal coca crops in Bolivia, and the country has had difficulty policing the illegally-grown crops. The risk is that the boundaries between the legal and illegally grown coca will only grow more blurred. 

Nevertheless, the UN caveat was long due. Treating coca leaf as directly equivalent to cocaine has no scientific basis and provocatively ignores centuries of Andean culture and history. It has also ultimately proved counter-productive as a policy, as the refusal by the US and it allies to countenance such arguments has contributed to Bolivia’s drift away from international cooperation on issues of drug trafficking and organized crime.  

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