Making the case for the coca leaf

Bolivian citizens have been pushed to their limit by the United Nations (UN) 1961 convention effectively placing an international ban on the cultivation and use of coca leaves. Protestors demonstrated their discontent at a rally on Jan. 27 in front of the U.S. Embassy.

The Bolivian government, led by Evo Morales, is attempting to amend this treaty to permit the local use of coca leaf chewing and other common practices, while still maintaining control over its cultivation. UN representative Pablo Solon has explained that if the proposed amendment to sanction the chewing of coca leaves is not met, Bolivia will appeal to have the case brought to an international conference.

“Coca leaves is as culturally ingrained to them as coffee to us and the way it is used without being refined doesn’t make it more a drug than coffee,” explained Anne-Marie Colpron, professor of anthropology at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The coca leaf itself contains certain alkaloids, which can be extracted and used as the base ingredient in cocaine; however, the leaves themselves can be used for a variety of purposes such as tea and toothpaste. Additionally, chewing the leaves can diminish hunger and altitude illness.

“To understand the absurdity of the situation, we just have to reverse it: how would we react if the UN would forbid the use of coffee in North America because it considers it harmful? The cultural impact would be huge and the protest totally understandable,” continued Colpron.

The United States has released a formal objection to any amendments to the UN convention, arguing that permitting the use of coca leaves in any context would be detrimental to eradicating the drug industry.
Britain and Sweden have also filed objections to any potential amendments, while Spain openly supports Bolivia and Colombia.

“The United States’ primary concern is probably drug importation; any drugs coming from anywhere into the U.S. is a threat to the U.S. That’s why the U.S. is being sympathetic to the UN resolution,” remarked Barry Kay, professor of political science at Laurier.

“Why is Spain taking the side of a drug culture? It is not that they really support a drug culture, they would define it in terms of a big country, like the U.S., is trying to impose its will on a poor Spanish speaking country,” Kay concluded.

Bolivian citizens are in disbelief that any complaints have been made against the use of coca leaves.

Those who assembled at the U.S. Embassy were demonstrating that claims made by the U.S. hold no influence over their activities and lifestyle.
The citizens are rejecting the legitimacy of a notion submitted by any international community that solicits to criminalize a deeply entrenched cultural practice that is not associated with drug use.

Residents of Bolivia are perplexed by the fact that countries like the U.S. are supporting the prohibition, essentially against Bolivian cultural practices, opposed to investigating the drug problem from within their own borders and jurisdiction.

“The gravity of the situation here, is the intrusion on other people’s ways of life, the ethnocentrism of such a legislation: it is a Western based hegemony,” Colpron concluded.

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