Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Taking a Courageous Stand Against...Leaves

As evil as cocaine and heroin?
In their indefatigable battle against cocaine, Colombia and the United States are standing together against...  coca leaf chewing.

A Bolivian miner chews away (Life Magazine).
The 1961 United Nations convention on narcotics prohibits, right alongside of cocaine, heroin and other dangerous, highly-addictive substances, the chewing of coca leaves. Yet, for millenia, millions of indigenous South Americans and others have chewed coca leaves with no apparent damage besides stained teeth. Coca chewers say the leaves repress hunger and increase energy, enabling people to work long shifts in mines or hike all day across the Bolivian or Peruvian altiplano. Advocates also claim that the leaves are medicine for many ills, including diabetes, stomach ailments and even cancer.

Who knows? But, at the very least, they're not bad for you.

A leafy Evo Morales
Bolivian Pres. Evo Morales, a one-time coca leaf farmer, who still heads his nation's coca farmers' union, has been promoting the use of coca leaves to make legal, healthy products like foods, as well as legalizing the practice of chewing. Now, he's proposed ending the United Nations prohibition against coca leaf chewing - and only Colombia and the United States have so far lined up against him.

Across Colombia coca tea, soft drinks and bags of leaves are sold openly, marketed by indigenous groups, making one wonder why the government believes that chewing the leaves is so terrible. Colombian officials haven't explained their position. For its part, the U.S. government made a confusing statement about Bolivia's proposed amendment creating "ambiguity" about controls on coca leaf. That's hard to understand, since coca leaves' drug alkaloid content is about one percent, meaning they have about as much in common with cocaine as grapes do with wine. You could eat coca leaves all day long, and you'd get a stomach ache but you wouldn't get high.

Selling Evil? Coca leaves, tea and other stuff for sale
in a Bogotá flea market. 
Which brings up the issue of respect towards indigenous peoples' traditions. The War on Drugs has produced tremendous damage, suffering and expense. And one of those casualties is the United States' image in Latin America, where many see their northern neighbor as a meddler which tramples traditions and local interests in pursuit of expanding its power. This sort of culturally insensitive attitude won't do either the U.S.'s or Colombia's image any good in the region.

Is it conceivable that a few leaves will be exported and then turned into cocaine overseas? Well, just barely. But, the authorities have  lost the drug control battle, anyway, so it's time to try something different.

That's the brunt of this Boston Globe article about Portugal's decriminalization of drug consumption (but not sales) and investment in rehabilitation, which appears to have decreased drugs' social costs in disease, crime and addiction, but also increased experimentation with drugs. Coincidentally, U.S. anti-drug czar Gil Kerlikowske just visited Colombia - and told El Tiempo newspaper that the U.S. won't reconsider its opposition to drug legalization, because 'that's been studied for many years, and nobody's found a legalization system that's been succesfull on any level.' I wonder what Mr. Kerlikowske thinks about the decision to end drug prohibition? Here's a response in El Tiempo and an editorial which argue that prohibition has failed so manifestly that it's stupid not to try something else.

What is undisputable is that every coca leaf which is chewed or consumed in tea, wine or medicine is one fewer leaf that becomes cocaine or crack. The Colombian and United States government should pull off their ideological blinders and back every initiative to pull this base ingredient out of the illegal drug market.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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