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Bolivian President Evo Morales was a class act when he chewed a coca leaf at the 2009 UN High Level Session on drugs.
He was announcing Bolivia's wish to abolish articles in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that require countries to eliminate the chewing of coca leaves.
"If this a drug, you should throw me in jail," said Morales. "It has no harmful impact ... at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances... and it does not cause addiction."
Bolivia's constitution protects coca as part of the country's cultural heritage. Morales' amendment would remove the obligation to prohibit traditional uses of coca, while maintaining the strict global control system for coca cultivation and cocaine.
Coca leaf has been chewed and brewed as tea for centuries in the Andean region. It's a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It helps overcome altitude sickness and is sacred within indigenous cultures.
Yet, the 1961 treaty treats coca exactly as it does cocaine.
History shows including coca in global drug treaties was a flawed decision. In 1949, UN Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf, head Howard B Fonda said, " We believe the daily, inveterate use of coca leaves by chewing... not only is thoroughly noxious and therefore detrimental, but also is the cause of racial degeneration... Our studies will confirm the certainty of our assertions and we hope we can present a rational plan of action... to attain the absolute and sure abolition of this pernicious habit."
A 1995 WHO study on coca and cocaine concluded that the "use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations."
Morales' amendment will not get a free ride. Some member states, led by the United States, have lodged formal objections arguing that tolerating coca undermines cocaine control. (Ironically, the US State Department's website recommends coca tea for altitude sickness, and its La Paz embassy has been known to serve it to visitors.)
The UN declaration on indigenous peoples, which the US endorsed last December, guarantees the protection of "cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions".
There is no scientific reason to maintain prohibition of traditional coca leaf use. But sadly, when it comes to global drug control there is zero tolerance for anyone who is seen to soften the status quo.
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