Bolivia Legalizes the Coca Leaf and and controls Exclusive Global RightsCreates a Positive Example for Modernizing the UN Drug Conventions - 11 Jan 2013
Washington, D.C.—Today the Plurinational State of Bolivia can celebrate a rightful victory, as the country can become formally a party again to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but without being bound by its unjust and unrealistic requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished.” This represents the successful conclusion of an arduous process in which Bolivia has sought to reconcile its international treaty obligations with its 2009 Constitution, which obliges upholding the coca leaf as part of Bolivia’s cultural patrimony.
After a first attempt to amend the Single Convention failed in 2011, Bolivia left the Convention with the intent to rejoin with a new reservation designed to align its international obligations with its Constitution.¹ The reservation applies only to Bolivian territory, and exportation of coca internationally remains proscribed.
Similar to the effort mounted by some countries to derail Bolivia’s proposed amendment two years ago, a group of countries again attempted to block Bolivia’s new reservation on coca. The United States spearheaded an arrangement whereby all the G8 countries would object, and several other countries also joined, including—embarrassingly—the Netherlands and Portugal. The amendment that Bolivia previously pursued could be stopped by a relatively small number of countries—18 countries, including Mexico under then-President Felipe Calderón, ultimately opposed the amendment. But the procedures regarding re-joining the Convention with reservations set a different threshold: a minimum of one-third of the 184 members of the treaty would be required to invalidate the reservation.
In fact, the number of objections fell far short of the 62 that would have been required to block Bolivia this time—despite a dramatic call from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to rally opposition, arguing that Bolivia’s move, should it succeed, “would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system.” In Latin America, the only country that moved to block Bolivia this time was again Mexico, now President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Indeed, most of the objections lodged against Bolivia’s reservation were not concerned with traditional coca use itself, but were focused on claims that the procedure Bolivia utilized was invalid. Sweden’s objection proved the exception, still defending the idea that coca leaf chewing must ultimately be abolished, stating that the “the ambition expressed in the convention is the successive prohibition also of traditional uses of drugs.” Other objections also expressed concern that accepting Bolivia’s reservation on the coca leaf could lead to an increase in cocaine production.
Notwithstanding the complaints over procedure that dominated the objections to Bolivia’s effort, the procedure Bolivia used is in fact fully legitimate under the treaty, although it is rarely used and is controversial under international law. Under exceptional circumstances and in the absence of alternative paths to resolve legal conflicts, however, it is generally deemed to be permitted. Those conditions clearly apply in this case: Bolivia did not make a reservation upholding traditional uses of coca when the country first joined the Single Convention in 1976 because the country was under a military dictatorship and indigenous peoples and their rights were still completely ignored and repressed. Now Bolivia has become a "Plurinational State" with an indigenous president and a new Constitution, while at the international level indigenous rights have become enshrined in the 2007 UN declaration. Moreover, Bolivia already attempted to resolve the contradiction between its Constitution and the treaties through other procedures—but was blocked in that effort by many of the same countries that have now opposed the reservation procedure as well. So if there was ever a case where this procedure could be justified, it is this one.
“The objecting countries’ emphasis on procedural arguments is hypocritical. In the end this is not about the legitimacy of the procedure Bolivia has used, it is not even really about coca chewing,” according to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of TNI’s Drugs and Democracy program. “What this really is about is the fear to acknowledge that the current treaty framework is inconsistent, out-of-date, and needs reform.”
Indeed, Bolivia’s success points the way for other countries—namely, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru—where traditional uses of the coca leaf are also permitted and whose national laws are in tension with the Conventions. The World Health Organization (WHO) should now also undertake a long-overdue review of the coca leaf’s classification as a Schedule I drug (alongside substances such as cocaine and heroin) in the Single Convention.
The drug policy debate is shifting, especially in Latin America, and a democratically-driven breakthrough with regard to cannabis regulation is underway in Uruguay and in two U.S. states, Colorado and Washington. At some point in the not so distant future, these changes will require other countries to reconcile their treaty obligations as well. It is time for the drug conventions to evolve and to become fit for purpose again for the challenges of this century.
“Those who would desperately try to safeguard the global drug control system by making it immune to any type of modernization are fighting a losing battle,” according to John Walsh, director of WOLA’s drug policy program. “Far from undermining the system, Bolivia has given the world a promising example that it is possible to correct historic errors and to adapt old drug control dogmas to today’s new realities.”
Objections were made by United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Israel, Ireland, Japan, México. The other 168 countries voted in favor of Bolivia.
¹“The Plurinational State of Bolivia reserves the right to allow in its territory: traditional coca leaf chewing; the consumption and use of the coca leaf in its natural state for cultural and medicinal purposes; its use in infusions; and also the cultivation, trade and possession of the coca leaf to the extent necessary for these licit purposes. At the same time, the Plurinational State of Bolivia will continue to take all necessary legal measures to control the illicit cultivation of coca in order to prevent its abuse and the illicit production of the narcotic drugs which may be extracted from the leaf.”