Bolivia appears on the verge of withdrawing from a major UN narcotics treaty, underscoring the difficulties facing the country as it attempts to balance drug policy with its cultural heritage of coca consumption.
Bolivia has for some time campaigned to amend the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics in order to decriminalize traditional uses of coca. These efforts have been fruitless, and now the lower house of the Bolivian Congress has approved President Evo Morales' request to withdraw from the convention.
Morales and his Movement for Socialism party (Movimiento al Socialismo - MAS) have repeatedly rejected the convention's classification of the coca leaf as an illicit substance, and its calls for the "uprooting" of all wild coca plants. According to them, such a move would be highly impractical at best, and at worst would be a serious blow to Bolivian culture. As they point out, the plant in its unprocessed form is used throughout the country for traditional and medicinal purposes.
Bolivia’s House of Representatives passed the bill on Wednesday, and it will now move to the Senate, where it will likely pass as the MAS party has a two-thirds majority. Once the bill goes through, President Morales is expected to sign it into law. Although the current text of the draft law would let Bolivia rejoin the convention in January 2012, it would release the country from the sections which pertain to coca cultivation.
Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has said that the move would not represent a rejection of Bolivia's responsibility to control drug production. Instead, he says, it is merely an attempt to bring this into line with Boliva’s 2009 constitution (which allows for limited coca cultivation) as well as its cultural heritage. "The coca leaf is a fundamental part of the culture of the Andean countries, and although we initially worked for an amendment to the convention which would allow us to continue acullico [the practice of coca chewing], it was not received favorably,” he said, adding that the law is a necessary alternative.
For their part, Morales’s political enemies are blasting the proposed law, arguing that it will reduce international faith in Bolivia’s counter-narcotics operations. Opposition politician Jaime Navarro has compared it to announcing that the country supports drug smuggling, and has called it the “worst signal to send internationally.” However, according to Bolivian newspaper La Razon, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's representative in the country has stated that the international community will stand behind Bolivia regardless of whether or not the law passes, and has called the debate “sincere and purely cultural.”
Ultimately, even if the law is passed, it is not likely to alter coca production in Bolivia one way or another. As InSight Crime has reported, the government's official "coca yes, cocaine no" policy already allows for up to 20,000 hectares of legal coca cultivation each year, but a lack of resources makes it difficult to effectively ensure this limit is kept to, or that the coca is not used for illicit purposes.
In January the Bolivian director of Coca Industrialization, Luis Cutipa, admitted that drug trafficking organizations managed to divert between 10 and 20 percent of the 2010 coca harvest to the black market. On top of this, the U.S. State Department criticized Bolivia in its 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, claiming that that although the Bolivian government eradicated 8,200 hectares of illegal coca in 2010, this was offset by an increase in coca production elsewhere in the country.
Adding to this skepticism is the legacy of police and military involvement in Bolivia’s drug trade. In late February, officials arrested Rene Sanabria -- the country’s former top narcotics official -- and accused him of coordinating a drug-trafficking ring. According to the Associated Press, Sanabria pleaded guilty this week in a U.S. federal court to cocaine trafficking charges, and promised to help U.S. drug investigators in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.