Evo Morales Scores One for the Coca Leaf

The United Nations bacs coca chewing in Bolivia.

January 11, 2013, 6:21 PM

Jan. 12, 2013— -- The United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs readmitted Bolivia into its fold on Friday, universally recognizing the right of Bolivians to chew the coca leaf. This gives President Evo Morales one of his most important victories thus far in his global efforts to decriminalize the coca leaf.

Bolivia had voluntary withdrawn from the UN group a year ago because it classified the coca leaf as an "illicit drug." On Friday, however, a majority of the convention's members voted to allow Bolivia back into the committee and also approved a statute which says that chewing the coca leaf is legal within Bolivia's borders.

It's a largely symbolic victory, as this UN commission lacks the power to regulate coca leaf consumption in Bolivia in the first place. But the UN declaration has been welcomed by the Bolivian government, which is planning to invite the country's coca growers to massive coca-chewing events in the cities of La Paz and Cochabamba next Monday.

The coca leaf is the base material for cocaine. But for centuries indigenous people in the Andean mountains have chewed this leaf in its natural form to gain energy and decrease hunger. Some groups in the region also consider the coca leaf to be a sacred plant, and use it regularly for social and religious rituals.

Evo Morales, who is himself a former coca grower, has championed the decriminalization of the leaf since he came into office in 2006, chewing coca in international forums, praising its nutritional qualities, and even asking Sean Penn to be his global ambassador for the coca leaf.

But the UN's decision to tolerate coca leaf chewing in Bolivia was not well taken by U.S. diplomats, who claim that most of Bolivia's coca crops are being used for cocaine production, and not for traditional chewing.

"We oppose Bolivia's reservation and continue to believe it will lead to a greater supply of cocaine," a senior U.S. State Department official, told the AP.

"While we recognize Bolivia's capacity and willingness to undertake some successful counternarcotics activities, especially in terms of coca eradication, we estimate that much of the coca legally grown in Bolivia is sold to drug traffickers, leading to the conclusion that social control of coca (allowing some legal growing) is not achieving the desired results," the official said in a statement.

Only a handful of UN member states voted against the readmission of Bolivia into the antinarcotics group. These included big cocaine consumers like the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, but also Mexico, a key U.S. ally and the main transit point for most cocaine headed to the United States.

Most member states did not object to Bolivia's readmission into the antinarcotics group or to the new statute which says that chewing, and growing the coca leaf, is fine within Bolivia. The non-objectors included Colombia and Peru which are the world's two biggest cocaine producers and also have very large crops of the coca leaf. U.S. diplomats may want to chew on that dilemma.

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