We filmed the speech of Mr. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, delivered at the high level UN meeting in Vienna on March 11th this year - you can watch the video with English substitles below (thanks for TNI for the translation). The speech left us with mixed feelings. First of all, it was a brave step to defend the cultural heritage of the Andean people in the lion’s den of the UN drug control regime, where most of the governmental representatives speak nonsense (watch our earlier video). He points out that the effort to eradicate an ancient tradition was not based on science, nor even on common sense: “If for centuries and centuries there has been coca leaf consumption how is it possible to end it with one agreement?”. He refutes the findings of a 1950 report that preceded the adoption of coca leaf to the list of narcotics of the 1961 Single Convention. The convention declared that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years from the coming into force of this convention”. Morales said that the detrimental effects attributed to coca chewing are in fact nonexistent and represent cultural prejudices rather than real life experiences. He calls the prohibition of coca leaf a historical mistake to be corrected by the international community. His chewing coca at a UN drug control event is truly historical act considering the militant anti-drug language many governments use there.
However, from the perspective of reforming the UN drug control system, his speech was not revolutionary at all. Morales did not criticise the very conventions and mechanisms that led to the prohibition of coca; he acts as if banning coca chewing was only an isolated mistake. What is more, he claims this mistake consisted of identifying coca as a drug while it is not a drug at all. So he says basically that there is no problem with the international drug control system – the only problem was to add coca leaf to the list of prohibited substances. Morales stands up against the zero-coca policy but supports zero-cocaine policy, ignoring the fact that the prohibition of cocaine is also based on false prejudices and unsubstantiated beliefs. He is well aware of the suppressed WHO report, confirming that the vast majority of cocaine users are recreational users who do not pose a significant threat to society and do not deserve to be imprisoned. He knows that coca growing is not only an issue in Bolivia and that current policies to repress the illegal cocaine market have failed – but he chooses a strategy that does not touch on any of these sensitive issues but focus on coca chewing as a cultural tradition.
This tactic, to avoid any criticism of the UN drug control system, may seem wise in the short run, but not in the long run. Morales could have joined those Latin American politicians who have called for a general reform of drug policies, based on the principles of harm reduction, instead of only fighting the battle for reclassifying coca leaf. Actually, the prohibition of coca was not a historical error in the drug control system, it was exactly how the system was indented to work. The mis-classification of the coca leaf is no different that the case of other illicit crops or substances. When Mr. Morales met with NGO representatives and journalists later on the same day at a side event organized by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), he was asked about possible cooperation for the reform of cannabis or opium policies. His answer was disappointing: he simply said that he does not know enough about these plants to take a side. This is very short sighted attitude indeed: he expects activists and government representatives to support his case but he declines to get involved in the discussion on other plants or substances.
UPDATE - TNI posted an open letter to HCLU (if you follow this link you can read it). Here is HCLU's response to the letter:
First of all, we would like to confirm that HCLU supports the reclassification of coca leaf. Actually we have never said anything else, I think our earlier video (Coca leaf: the heritage of the Andes) shows our position quite well. We have great sympathy to the case Morales has been advocating for many years, that is, to give back the dignity to the native people of Bolivia and end zero-coca policies in Latin-America. We don't have any problems with this - what we say is it would be wiser to put this struggle to an international context and point out the anomalies in the international drug control system that led to the prohibition of plants like coca in the first place. That is, to point to the elephant in the room.
Posted by Peter Sarosi