Bolivia to Withdraw from UN Single Convention

Coca leaves

Bolivia is set to withdraw from an international narcotics convention in protest at its classification of coca leaves as an illegal drug. President Evo Morales, who is also the leader of one of the country’s main coca producers’ unions, has asked Congress to pass a law that would take Bolivia out of the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The government says that the convention contravenes the Bolivian constitution, which states that the country is obliged to preserve and protect the chewing of coca leaves as a cultural heritage and ancestral practice.

Bolivia has long argued that coca in its natural state is not an illicit drug. The plant is legally grown in the country for medicinal and traditional purposes. An international attempt to remove its chewing from the UN list failed in January, so the government now wants to withdraw from the convention altogether.

Under the draft law, which has already passed the lower chamber of Congress and is likely to pass in the Senate, where Morales’s party has a two-thirds majority, Bolivia would keep its international obligations in the fight against drug trafficking. Foreign minister David Choquehuanca said the country could rejoin the convention next year, but with a reservation: that it be allowed to consume coca legally.

“[This] is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people,” Choquehuanca said.

Opposition politicians argue that the government is surrendering to traffickers. “Internationally, we’re giving a bad impression as a country,” said opposition congressman Mauricio Muñoz. “There will be disastrous and irreversible consequences for Bolivia. And we think this is the wrong path the president is taking, not to fight drug trafficking head on.”

Bolivia is the third largest coca producer in the world, much of which is diverted for making cocaine for Brazilian and European markets. But while recently admitting that coca cultivation has grown in the country, Bolivia maintains that it cannot defeat drug traffickers without a reduction in the consumption of cocaine in the west.

TNI/WOLA support Bolivian Decision

“The Transnational Institute and the Washington Office in Latin America (TNI/WOLA) express their full understanding and support for the decision taken by the Morales administration, with the approval of the Bolivian legislature. After its proposed amendment was rejected, Bolivia had no other choice but to withdraw from the Convention, given the need to reconcile its international treaty obligations with the country’s new 2009 Constitution, which allows for a period of four years for the government to “denounce and, in that case, renegotiate the international treaties that may be contrary to the Constitution.”

“According to the 2009 Constitution: “The State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. It’s revaluing, production, commercialization and industrialization shall be regulated by law” (article 384). The restrictions placed by the Single Convention on the coca leaf and its traditional uses – in the absence of any evidence of its harmfulness, were an historical error and a violation of indigenous rights.

“The other procedure available under the treaty to correct this error – apart from the amendment that was already rejected – is a World Health Organization (WHO) review of the classification of the coca leaf. Bolivia considers that the outcome of such a WHO procedure would likely take too long to comply with the four-year Constitutional deadline.

“We call on the international community to express understanding and support for the decision taken by the Bolivian government. Other countries with comparable legal conflicts regarding the status of the coca leaf, such as Peru, Colombia and Argentina, would be well-advised to follow Bolivia’s step and/or to initiate the long overdue WHO review.”

Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961