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Going Through the Motions

lime powder container (used traditionally in coca chewing), 1st-7th-century, Colombia (Quimbaya), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Bolivia's government has announced it plans to allow "excess" coca growing but will buy it up to prevent it being used to make cocaine. The move follows a fairly dramatic earlier announcement that the nation is actually withdrawing from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs over the treaty's ban on traditional coca products. Only slightly dramatic, though; they are planning to rejoin in a year, agreeing to everything except for the coca ban, and to continue "fighting drug trafficking" in the meanwhile.

Drawing a distinction between high-potency cocaine vs. natural coca leaves and the teas, candies and soaps made from it is fair. So is the claim of coca use being a tradition going back thousands of years -- visit any museum with an Andean collection and you'll likely see high-end, ancient spoons and containers used to dispense lime powder used by coca chewers to extract alkaloid from the raw leaves.

Whether the promise to "fight trafficking" is sincere depends on what one means by that. Bolivia will continue to carry out law enforcement operations to interdict illicit cocaine shipments, to find and destroy illicit coca fields, maybe even to break up criminal operations. In that sense Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales (an indigenous Bolivian and himself a coca grower) is as sincere as our leaders are here in the United States.

If the question, however, is whether such exercises are actually useful, decades of data say they are not. Coca growing has undergone large shifts over the decades between the three major producing countries -- Bolivia, Colombia and Peru -- but with the total from the three countries combined staying relatively constant. Drug warriors in the US and at the UN have touted a drop in recent years in the estimated number of hectares (10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres) being used to grow illicit coca for the cocaine trade. But all that means is the coca is more potent now -- less growing is needed to produce the same amount of cocaine.

lime spoons, coastal Inka, Peru, mid-15th to 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art
As long as Bolivia goes through those motions, they can minimize the pressure and criticisms brought to bear by drug warriors in other countries from their treaty move. Leaders in those other countries, the US principally, can in turn avoid political flack or annoyance thereby as well. In this way Morales may succeed in taking the pressure off of both his fellow cocaleros and his administration -- liberalizing coca policy is a good thing.

But for the many victims of drug trafficking -- the young and old massacred each week in Mexico, for example -- only the whole truth will one day free them. And the whole truth of drug policy is that prohibition causes violence, costs money and lives and doesn't work, all the politically cautious displays of cooperation notwithstanding.

Location: 
La Paz
Bolivia
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Perhaps the coca plantations are smaller because they've branched out into heroin.Word is that the East coast is awash in Columbian brown heroin like the west is in black tar from Mexico.

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