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Editorial: The Coca Wars are Futile, Whereas Drug Legalization is a Win-Win

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
An August 5 article in Time Magazine, "Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success," observed that legal coca cultivation and the illicit cocaine trade are not the same thing. Despite increased tolerance for coca growing by the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales -- who came up through the ranks of the coca grower community himself to become Bolivia's first indigenous chief executive -- reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky notes that interceptions of illicitly grown coca destined for cocaine labs are up by 30% from 2007, and 11 tons of coca paste have been intercepted this first part of the year alone, more than in all of 2005 (the year before Morales took office), according to the country's Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN).

The point is an important one. Coca is a crop grown for generations in Bolivia and other Andean nations, and it is one that is economically needed. Cocalero leaders from Bolivia and Peru spoke eloquently to their situation, their needs -- and their rights -- at our Latin America conference convened in Mexico in 2003. Coca-based tea and candies and even soap given out by conference attendees made the point directly -- coca is not cocaine, cocaine's origin in the coca leaf notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, the article stopped there, and didn't ask the logical next question: Will Bolivia's increased drug control achievements actually reduce the global supply of cocaine?

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
If history and economics are guides, the answer is "no." From 1995 to 2000, for example, Bolivian coca cultivation declined from 51,000 hectares to only 8,000, according to State Dept. estimates. Growing went from 117,000 to 41,000 in neighboring Peru at the same time. But Colombian coca growing rose from 54,000 to 139,000 hectares -- not completely erasing the Bolivian and Peruvian reductions, but mostly erasing them. Meanwhile, US retail cocaine prices, adjusted for purity and inflation, are just a fifth of what they were in 1981, the year the DEA's price-tracking program started.

For the shift in coca growing from country to country to be so much greater than the overall change can only mean that demand is the dominant factor at work, not enforcement. For cocaine prices to drop so incredibly too, shows that eradication, interdiction and domestic policing all combined aren't even making a dent -- suppliers simply anticipate the losses by sending more, and they can afford it.

Bolivian farmers deserve better than harassment over a traditional crop they economically need, making the Morales administration's tolerance of coca growing just. But supply-side anti-drug efforts are futile in term of the ultimate goal, and people around the world affected by cocaine and the illegal trade deserve better too. Only global legalization can stop the violence and corruption that characterize the illegal drug trade. Addicted users will also feel freer to seek help when they are not considered criminals, and will be less likely to do harm to themselves or others in the meanwhile. Ending drug prohibition is a win-win proposition.

Latin America: Peru Constitutional Court Overturns State Law Okaying Coca Crops

The Peruvian Constitutional Tribunal, the Andean country's highest court dealing with constitutional issues, announced Wednesday that it had overturned a law approved by the Department of Puno that legalized the production of coca leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine. Puno had passed the law in February.

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stunted coca plant in garden at Machu Picchu
After Colombia, Peru is the world's second largest producer of coca. Some of the coca is legal, the farmers licensed by the government to produce it for sale to ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly. But tens of thousands of other farmers grow coca without official permission, some of it undoubtedly destined to be turned into cocaine.

For the past two decades, successive governments backed by assistance from the United States, have endeavored to eradicate illicit coca crops, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those efforts have roiled Peruvian coca production areas, with unionized coca farmers facing off against police and the armed forces.

While the Department of Puno, in far southern Peru, had sought to regularize the situation by okaying coca production, the high court held that the department was trying to set national drug policy. That is the province of the national government alone, the court held.

Latin America: Ecuador Assembly Pardons Hundreds of Drug Mules

Ecuador's constitutional assembly last Friday pardoned hundreds of small-time drug couriers currently sitting in Ecuadorian prisons. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed the pardons and other drug sentencing reforms, saying it was absurd to sentence low-level couriers to more than a decade in prison for as little as 3.5 ounces of cocaine.

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Rafael Correa
The constitutional assembly took over legislative power in the country after suspending the nation's Congress last year. Under the assembly's action, prisoners who had been convicted of carrying 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of drugs or less, had served at least 10% of their sentences or one year in prison, and were not repeat offenders were pardoned.

Ernesto Pazmino, director of Ecuador's public defender's office, told the Associated Press the application process was to begin this week, and the government has 30 days to release eligible prisoners.

"The president has come through with his promise, and we appreciate him and the assembly members," Carlo Aragundi, head of a prisoners' organization at a jail in Quito, told the AP. Aragundi estimated that as many as 1,200 prisoners may be eligible.

Although Ecuador produces almost no coca, it is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world's number one and two coca and cocaine producers, and is frequently used as a transit country for cocaine headed to North America. President Correa acknowledged last year that his own father had spent three years in a US prison on drug charges.

Chapare Coca Growers Cut Ties with USAID

Chapare coca growers cut ties with USAID after years of poorly-framed, ineffectual initiatives. Prepared by the Andean Information Network, June 27, 2008 On June 24, 2008 Chapare coca grower unions announced that they will no longer sign new aid agreements with USAID.[i] This announcement comes after two decades of poorly-focused policies, which did little to improve the lives of the majority of Chapare residents, especially during forced eradication. These development programs also provoked division and friction within the region by dividing communities and linking aid to controversial coca reduction. As a result, it is not surprising that Chapare coca growers made this decision; it is only surprising that they waited so long. Furthermore, the announcement is largely a symbolic gesture; USAID plans to shift the bulk of its already restricted Chapare activities to the La Paz Yungas in the coming year, and Chapare municipalities have found other funding partners. According to the 2008 INSCR, “Relatively more resources will be devoted to the Yungas, an under-developed coca growing region ….Assistance to the Chapare will continue to decline….” As a result, the number and scope of projects affected is minimal. It is interesting to note that there has been no rejection of cooperation with the U.S. Narcotics Affairs Section or the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the Chapare. Coca grower representatives affirm the need for their presence, “because their policy is to fight drug trafficking, like ours, but now it’s on our terms.”[ii] Coordination on cooperative coca reduction and interdiction remain unaltered. It is crucial to look beyond the initial perception of an anti-American political stance to address the genuine popular discontent generated by these programs in order to properly re-evaluate the structure and impact of USAID initiatives. In an environment where the weight of US funding has diminished greatly, it makes sense to accept the Chapare farmers’ “no thank you,” and allow the region’s residents to determine who they would like to work with to improve the lives of their families. The long term frustration with USAID in the Chapare is real, but the threat of violence is highly unlikely. There is no apparent backlash against USAID workers. According to MAS congressman Asterio Romero, “We cordially request that they (USAID) leave; we won’t use force or take over their facilities, but we want them to go quickly.”[iii] While some cocaleros may have said some provocative things such as calling the Chapare a “USAID-free territory,”[iv] USAID has not been entirely expelled from the Chapare – the few ongoing projects will most likely continue until their designated end dates. Coca growers are simply moving toward other sources of aid and away from the conditions and failures of USAID projects. The cocaleros made their decision to reject USAID at the same time that several large projects have ended and new projects through the European Union funded Social Control and Integrated Development initiatives – which focus on working with local communities and do not impose coca eradication – were launched. A history of failure and friction During the past ten years, AIN, WOLA and other investigators have repeatedly highlighted the inherent flaws of USAID alternative development initiatives in the Chapare, especially during forced eradication. Key areas of concern included: - Externally-designed and imposed initiatives developed without significant consultation with Chapare farmers. - The great majority of funds dedicated to overhead, salaries of foreign consultants and other costs. “Eighty percent of these resources went to pay the salaries of the Alternative Development personnel; twenty percent went to production, and only six percent for the producers. We only got crumbs, and we are still poor.”[v] - From 1998-2003, farmers could only have access to USAID assistance after the complete eradication of their coca crop. As a result, families with no alternative income went hungry before agricultural initiatives kicked in, forcing them to replant coca. - USAID projects refused to work directly with coca growers unions, although these strong organizations could have helped facilitate the implementation of projects. Instead, they formed parallel ‘associations” and demanded that farmers leave unions to receive assistance. This practice generated divisions and conflict within Chapare communities. - Community promoters were asked to inform USAID contractors about their neighbors who continued to plant coca or spoke out against alternative development, further heightening tensions in the region. - Poorly-designed agricultural initiatives lack affordable transportation mechanisms and markets. Many farmers found that it was cheaper to let their products rot in the field than it was to take them to market. - The majority of these projects failed due to impracticality of transporting heavy produce without proper roads, the low-market price offered locally for fruit, and the inability for small-scale Bolivian producers to compete on international markets. - A USAID contracted lawyer filed narcoterrorism charges against over one hundred coca growers, the bulk of the Six Federations leadership, for attacks on alternative development installations. - USAID took over the bulk of the funding of FAO projects, like the Jatun Sacha forestry initiative, forcing the project to incorporate US conditioning on coca eradication. - Unlike the more cost effective European Union initiative, Praedac, the US refused until 2003 to work with coca grower municipalities in the Chapare. - USAID placed increasing emphasis on work with private enterprise in the Chapare, which failed to pass profits on to or fairly compensate their employees. A short-lived policy shift In late 2003, after the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, USAID decided to begin to work collaboratively with coca grower municipalities in the Chapare, in an effort to alleviate the high tensions around US programs in the region. Coca growers welcomed the change and actively participated – a significant shift in acceptance of USAID initiatives in the region. - Unfortunately, with the election of Evo Morales, USAID froze these joint initiatives for a year, wreaking havoc with municipal planning. In the interim, Chapare mayors sought out and obtained significant alternative funding from the EU, European governments and Venezuela, without any of the political strings and conditioning attached to US efforts. - Even though they had frozen funding, the US claimed that the lack of violence in the region was due to “a new, integrated alternative development approach in the Chapare [which] provides for participation by municipalities in GOB decisions on development, implementation and monitoring of programs. This has helped reduce coca-related conflict and strengthen local commitment to licit development.”[vi] Coca growers were understandably angered by this misleading statement. - When USAID initiatives resumed in the region, they were increasingly irrelevant. New requirements, such as renewed conditioning on coca reduction, although now on a global and not family level, and the obligation to sign an agreement certifying that recipient communities were “terrorist-free zones” exacerbated this situation. In addition, after the election of Morales, USAID began to block meetings of NGOs, such as AIN and WOLA, with its Chapare contractors. When asked, one high-ranking USAID official in Bolivia explained that, “It would be problematic to allow contractors to speak in the name of the US government,” and said that AIN could tour alternative development facilities escorted by USAID personnel. This lack of transparency is quite surprising, considering that in prior years, both organizations had always had free access to all USAID projects, even during the peak of violent conflicts. AIN attempted to find contact information for over twenty USAID contractors within Bolivian, could only identify nine, and when contacted, only one organization accepted a meeting. This lack of transparency around USAID initiatives is problematic and inexplicable, when nongovernmental investigation in the past had led to significant improvement in programs. With the history of failed alternative development, lack of transparency, and conditionality of coca eradication, it is hardly surprising that Chapare growers have rejected further ties to USAID funding. In a region where local unions and grassroots organizations were already highly politically mobilized, these programs served to undermine the history of community organizing. After living through the tensions and failures associated with USAID, Morales’ and his administration’s mistrust of USAID initiatives is hardly inexplicable. In light of repeated Morales administration accusations of USAID funding of the opposition’s political agendas, the proposed doubling of US assistance in the FY2009 Budget Request from economic development to “rule of law, good governance, electoral processes, consensus building, civil society and education,” has intensified these underlying tensions. Chapare growers are moving toward different funding sources such as the European Union and Venezuela, which come with far less strings attached and do not condition assistance on reducing the coca crop. The MAS administration, while critical of many US policies and frustrated with conditional aid, continues to work with and receive funding from the US, especially anti-narcotics programs. Voices from the Chapare tell the real story. The mayor of Villa Tunari said, “We don’t want USAID anymore, if they are going to cooperate, it would have to be without conditions like the European Union.”[vii] Time to re-evaluate US development initiatives Although it may be tempting to characterize Chapare coca growers as ungrateful “beneficiaries,” blindly tied to their leader’s anti-US political agenda, their rejection of USAID projects is an important example of negative impact of development policy tied to political agendas. It is important to note that more pragmatic, grounded U.S.-funded development efforts in Bolivia, such as the Interamerican Foundation projects, continue to be well-received in all departments, and by MAS and prefectural officials. Especially on the eve of a national election, the predictable rejection of USAID assistance by coca growers should serve as a wake-up call to US planners and policymakers. It is crucial to reassess the design, orientation and objectives of US-funded development effects to meaningfully involve the participants and eliminate political conditioning. Background reading on USAID Alternative Development in Bolivia Failures of alternative development: Linda Farthing’s “Rethinking Alternative Development” Political conditioning of USAID: Linda Farthing and Benjamin Kohl’s: “Conflicting Agenda’s: The Politics of Development Aid in Drug-Producing Areas” Linda Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur’s: “The Beat goes On: The US War on Coca” 2006 USAID funding freeze and its impact: Coletta Youngers and Kathryn Ledebur: “Update on Drug Policy Issues in Bolivia” Failures of USAID and potential benefits of EU projects: Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta A. Younger’s “Balancing Act: Bolivia’s Drug Control Advances and Challenges” -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [i] “Usaid deja el trópico y EEUU teme por la seguridad de su personal.” Los Tiempos, 26 June, 2008. [ii] Cocaleros piden la salida de otras agencias cooperantes.” La Razón 27 June 2008. [iii] Ibid. [iv] “Funcionarios de Usaid salen del Chapare,” La Rázon, 26 June 2008. [v] “Cocaleros piden la salida de otras agencias cooperantes.” La Razón 27 June 2008. [vi] The 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report is available at http://www.sta te.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2007/vol1/html/80855.htm [vii] “Funcionarios de Usaid salen del Chapare.”

Latin America: Bolivia's Chapare Coca Growers Tell USAID to Get Lost, Say They Will Seek Funding from Venezuela

Coca grower union leaders in Bolivia's Chapare region said Wednesday they will suspend development projects funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and instead look to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez for help. They accused USAID of using its assistance to undermine Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader who is an ally of Chávez, Washington's bête noire in Latin America.

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Bolivian congressman Asterio Romero spoke with Drug War Chronicle in person in March 2007
"We want USAID to go. If USAID leaves, we will have aid from Venezuela, which is unconditioned and in solidarity," Chapare coca leader Julio Salazar told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Venezuela already provides financial assistance to Bolivia. Chávez has also invested in the Andean nation's effort to create an industry around coca products, providing support in the building of coca-processing facilities.

Asterio Romero, vice president of Chapare's main coca-growing group, told the AP growers on Tuesday agreed to cancel the USAID's operations in the region and gave it until Thursday to leave.

The coca grower action has apparently taken both governments by surprise. The US Embassy in La Paz refused comment, saying it had not been officially informed of the coca growers' decision. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Tuesday he was not familiar with the decision, but that his government wants to make US aid "more transparent."

President Morales has accused USAID of financing his political opponents. Among them are wealthy landowners from the country's eastern provinces who are seeking greater autonomy or secession.

Our Drug War Alliances in South America Are Crumbling

Decades of drug war demolition tactics have taken their toll on our diplomacy in South America:

QUITO (Reuters) - From Argentina to Nicaragua, Latin Americans have elected leftist leaders over the last decade who are challenging Washington's aggressive war on drugs in the world's top cocaine-producing region.

These governments are shaking off U.S. influence in the region and building defense and trade alliances that exclude the United States. Some now say they can better fight drugs without U.S. help and are rejecting policies they do not like.

The strongest resistance to U.S. drug policies is in Ecuador and Bolivia, two coca-growing countries of the Andes, and in Venezuela.

This is just the inevitable consequence of bribing foreign governments to let our soldiers run around on their land slashing and burning the livelihoods of impoverished populations. We've declared war on the coca plant itself, insisting that it not be grown even by indigenous people who've used it for thousands of years for altitude sickness and appetite suppression. As it becomes increasingly clear that none of this is accomplishing anything, everyone's starting to realize that we have no intention of ever leaving.

We literally go around giving report cards to sovereign nations rating their cooperation in our own hopeless effort to stop Americans from using drugs. Both sides in the South American drug war are funded with U.S. dollars, yet we bare only the burden of our own indulgence, not the horrific violence and destabilization wrought by the endless war on drugs.

Thanks to democracy, however, the victims of our disastrous policies in South America may elect leaders who want to kick us the hell out. I can’t say I blame them.

Latin America: Coca Production Up Last Year, UN Reports

In an annual report released Wednesday, Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found itself "surprised and shocked" to announce that the amount of land devoted to coca growing in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru had risen to more than 181,000 hectares, or more than 700 square miles. That is a 16% increase over 2006 figures and the highest level of cultivation since 2001.

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Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Colombia, which remains the region's largest coca and cocaine producer despite a seven-year, $5 billion dollar US effort to wipe out the crop, had the most dramatic increase, jumping up 27%. Cultivation increased 5% in Bolivia, where a coca-friendly government is de facto allowing small increases, and 4% in Peru, where a non-coca-friendly government is in constant low-level conflict with coca growers.

"The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: a surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa. "But this bad news must be put in perspective," he added in desperate search of a silver lining. "Just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents", Costa said, noting that half of all cocaine production and a third of all cultivation occurs in just 10 of the country's 195 municipalities.

But despite the increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production remained stable. Last year, global potential production of cocaine was 994 metric tons, according to the UNODC, while in 2006, it was 984 metric tons. The UNODC pointed to lower yields as a result of pressure from massive aerial eradication, which caused farmers to seek out peripheral lands and resort to smaller, more dispersed coca patches.

"In the past few years, the Colombian government destroyed large-scale coca farming by means of massive aerial eradication, which unsettled armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation," Costa predicted rosily.

Last year, Colombia's drug police, working with US funds and US contractors, sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 50,000 hectares. But as in the past, Colombia's coca growing peasants, faced with few alternatives, have adapted rapidly, negating the gains of the eradicators.

While Congress has gone along with the $5 billion experiment to eradicate coca in Colombia in the last year of the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush presidency, the clamor is rising on Capitol Hill for a shift in emphasis in US aid. Currently, the aid goes 80% to security forces and 20% for development assistance. Solons can rightly ask just what they've been getting for all that money.

They're Producing Cocaine in Brazil Now, Too

Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, the cartels controlling the cocaine trade will continue to expand their operations and defy US-funded eradication efforts in South America.

RIO DE JANEIRO, March 17 (UPI) -- A large-scale coca plant and cocaine production operations have been discovered in Brazil, the first of their kind, authorities said

At least four separate farms were found in the Amazon rain forest by way of satellite imagery analyzed by Brazilian officials, Agencia Estado news agency reported Monday.

The discovery shocked authorities, as coca plants do not normally thrive in the dense, humid Amazon rain forest. [UPI]

I suppose these precious rainforests become less humid when you burn them down to plant coca. Now that they know it works, we can expect much, much more of this. I wrote recently about the inevitable destruction of rainforests throughout South America if we continue mindlessly chasing coca production in circles. This latest move into Brazil is another step towards that outcome.

The thriving cocaine industry cannot be stopped, but it can be regulated and controlled to prevent violence, corruption, and environmental destruction. Some might call this "giving up," but when you're doing something so phenomenally expensive and ineffective, giving up eventually becomes your only option. Besides, I'd rather give up on the drug war than the rainforest anyway.

Location: 
United States

Latin America: First Coca Plantations, Cocaine Lab Found in Brazil

In an ominous sign for US coca eradication efforts in South America, the Brazilian military said Sunday it had for the first time discovered coca plantations and a cocaine laboratory on its national territory. Coca has been grown by indigenous people in the Andes for thousands of years, and in recent years, three countries -- Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- have accounted for all the world's coca leaf.

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coca seedlings
The Brazilian army used helicopters and small boats to reach the coca fields and lab in a remote area near the northwestern city of Tabatinga, close to the borders with Peru and Colombia. The fields were discovered when satellite photos showed large clearings hacked out of the jungle.

Lt. Col. Antônio Elcio Franco Filho told reporters Sunday finding coca plants was a surprise. "It is the first time these plantations have been found in Brazil," he said, adding that the find had prompted authorities to look for more fields in the region.

"This is new in Brazil and it's a concern," Walter Maierovitch, an organized crime expert who once headed Brazil's anti-drug efforts, told the government's Agência Brasil news service. "It could mean a change in the geo-strategy of some Colombian cartels."

While coca grows well in the Andean-Amazon highlands, the climate in the Amazon basin is not believed to be favorable to coca cultivation. But according to Franco Filho, the leaf growing in Brazil could be adapted to that climate.

"We believe they are using a transgenic or an adaptation of the leaf used in the Andean region," Franco Filho said. "They are probably trying to find new locations to grow this, so we need to stay alert. Authorities need to crack down on them immediately. If we don't do anything it might even become a source of deforestation."

By Monday, US anti-drug officials were raising alarms. "Brazilian law enforcement is going to have to be vigilant on this front, so it doesn't become a major producer," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Associated Press. If coca can be successful grown there, said Courtney, "the Amazon would be a perfect area, with all the brush and uninhabited areas. It almost creates a perfect opportunity. Drug traffickers and organizations are always moving to new areas."

No one was arrested in the raid. Brazil, whose status as the world's number two cocaine consumer nation may be threatened by the rising popularity of the drug in Europe, may now be about to join the elite ranks of the coca producing nations.

Latin America: Bolivia Defies UN Drug Watchdog, Will Fund Push for Expanded Coca Markets

Last week, the UN-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called on Bolivia and Peru to ban the growing and chewing of the coca plant, but both governments have rejected that call. The government of Bolivian President Evo Morales is going a step further: Instead of banning the plant, it announced that it plans to spend $300,000 this year in an effort to develop legal markets for coca products.

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Bolivian display at UN drug summit featuring coca-3000 years posters
Although used traditionally and non-problematically for thousands of years in South America, the coca leaf is also the source of cocaine. All the world's coca comes from three countries -- Colombia (50%), Peru (33%), and Bolivia (17%).

While Morales, a former coca grower union leader, first announced the funding last month, his government decided to publicize it in the wake of the INCB call last week. Vice Ministry of Social Defense spokesman Ilder Cejas told the Associated Press Tuesday the money would go to promote the "industrialization" of the coca leaf. The Bolivian government hopes that by broadening legal markets for coca products, such as tea, toothpaste, flour, and herbal medicines, it can rescue the leaf from the drug trade.

Although use of coca preparations is common in the Andes, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Drugs, which, along with its successor treaties, forms the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime, lists the coca plant as a banned drug, like cocaine, heroin, and opium. Under the 1961 treaty, coca chewing was to be "abolished" by 1987. That hasn't happened.

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