In its 2007 Annual Report, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to ban coca chewing, as well as its sale or export. The indigenous people of the Andes have chewed coca for thousands of years, and the call is likely to fall on deaf ears in the Andes.
In its review of coca and cocaine production in South America, the board noted that despite multi-billion dollar eradication efforts in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- responsible for 50%, 33%, and 17% of coca production, respectively -- cocaine production had remained stable at between 800 and 1,000 tons a year for the past decade. The way to get at cocaine production is to eliminate coca production, the board suggested.
"The Board requests the Government of Bolivia and Peru to take measures to prohibit the sale, use and attempts to export coca leaf for purposes which are not in line with the international drug control treaties," the group said. "The Board is concerned by the negative impact of increased coca leaf production and cocaine manufacture in the region."
It urged governments "to establish as a criminal offense" using coca leaf to make tea, flour, or other products. That would undercut efforts in all three countries to develop and expand markets for coca products.
Reaction from Bolivia, where former coca leader President Evo Morales has called for the removal of the coca plant from the list of substances banned by the international drug treaties, was swift and negative. "In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca,'' said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. "To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity," he told Bloomberg News Service Wednesday.
Treating coca as if it were a dangerous drug was "absurd," said Wade Davis, an author and botanist who studied coca in Colombia. "Coca is as vital to the Andes as the Eucharist is to Catholics," he told the news service. "There is no evidence of toxicity or addiction in 4,000 years of use."
The INCB call to ban coca use was also met by a sharp attack from the Transnational Institute, whose Drugs and Democracy Project seeks to develop and implement pragmatic, harm reduction approaches to global drug issues. "The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures," said Pien Metaal, a TNI researcher specializing in coca issues. "Isn't it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?"
Not only does the INCB proposal violate the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, it "would mean the prosecution of several million people in the Andean-Amazon region," TNI said. "It targets not just consumers, but also peasants who grow coca."
"The Board's position makes no sense," said Metaal. "It would criminalize entire peoples for a popular tradition and custom that has no harm and is even beneficial."