Chewing coca at the UN

May 15, 2009

The Bolivian president's speech at the high level UN meeting in Vienna - UPDATED

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 subtitles 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.
 

Moralas's speech - part 1

 

Morales' speech - part 2



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.

Watch our earlier video on coca leaf as the heritage of the Andes



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.

Yes, Morales is asking for the revision of the Single Convention with regard to coca leaf - but in his speech he didn't say there is any problem with the Single Convention itself, or the mechanisms of the UN drug control system, he claims this is a good system to tackle other drugs - he only says it was a mistake to put coca to the list of narcotics. What is more, he suggests that coca is not even a drug, only food and medicine - that is, different from drugs like tobacco, caffeine or cannabis.

Second, we have never claimed that Bolivia as a UN member state does not play a positive role at the CND meetings, or it does not support harm reduction when it comes to resolutions. But in our blog we did not focus on the role Bolivia as a state played at the CND, nor even on domestic policies in the country - we were talking only about the speech Morales gave in Vienna, we focused on his message. Actually if the president of the Netherlands or Hungary makes such a speech we would voice the same concerns. The president’s speech got the most media coverage from this event, so it would have been an excellent opportunity to show that Bolivians suffer from the symptoms of the same system that makes IDUs in Russia or imprisoned marijuana users in the US, or communities harmed by violence in Mexico suffer. All these problems are interrelated and they are the symptoms of the same failed global framework to deal with drugs and deal with people who grow some plants or use some drugs. I think a strong speech from Morales would have been much more important than any resolutions or "interpretative statements" (with unknown fate in the future).

Morales is not only a coca grower anymore - if he would be so, our criticism had been really off the mark, as TNI claims. But he is a president of a country now, he is a politician, and this requires a much broader political perspective, to look at drug policy in an international and multisectoral context. Of course we don't except him to call for legalization or the total withdrawal of the international conventions, not even to advocate for substitution treatment in Russia - but we expect him to at least mention that there are significant unintended consequences of the global drug control system, that it has a key importance for Latin-Americans how the demand for cocaine is tackled in so called consumer countreis, or to point out the similarities between the problems of Bolivia and other producer countries, regardless of the plant they produce. If a European politician makes a key speech and he says that actually this system fits for purpose in general, the only problem is the lack of harm reduction (with no attention to forced eradication of coca for instance), it would be the same mistake.

We think the key to the success of the drug policy reform movement is to realize how dependent we are on each other, how similar problems we face globally - to find common goals and create alliances. Short sighted attitudes are often present in other groups as well (eg. cannabis legalization advocates who solely advocate for legalizing cannabis as a universal panacea, or some HIV advocates who don't care supply side problems only focus on harm reduction among IDUs). Too many parallel universes, no common language, no common understanding: that's the real challenge we drug policy reform advocates face.

We admire TNI's great efforts to change drug policies in the globe and remain supporters of Morales' struggle to reclassify coca leaf.

 

Posted by Peter Sarosi

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