Coca leaves have been consumed by natives in Bolivia for centuries. The native Bolivian population used coca to treat many medical conditions such as fatigue and altitude sickness as well as hunger and thirst. In many other countries, however, coca consumption is frowned upon and the substance is considered a narcotic.
When Pope Francis recently visited South America in early July, he drank a brew of chamomile, anise and coca leaves — an ancient South American elixir that wards off altitude sickness. This led to some stir on the internet regarding his consumption of coca.
Bolivia is considered a lower-middle-income country, where the gross national income in 2014 was USD $2,830 per person, according to the World Bank. Coca production in Bolivia contributes greatly to the economy and is a means of livelihood for many farmers. It is the second largest producer of coca leaves behind Peru.
During the 1980s, coca production and trade amounted to USD $1 billion in annual exports, according to an analysis by the United States Library of Congress. That number is much higher today: in 2014, Bolivia’s GDP was $34.18 billion, according to the World Bank.
There is, however, a dark side to coca leaves. It is the main ingredient used to process cocaine. Bolivia supplied over 15 percent of the cocaine that reached the streets of the United States in the 1980s, making it a strong target of international criticism from Congress.
At the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, coca was outlawed and Bolivia’s use of coca was greatly limited and restricted. The treaty commanded Bolivia and other Andean nations to ban the consumption of coca leaves amongst their citizens.
In its natural state, the coca leaf is not scientifically harmful, and consuming it is a benign practice that is central to the cultural practice of millions of indigenous South American people. The treaty, however, declares that the exportation of coca is restricted; most countries outside of South America consider the trade and exportation of coca illegal, even in its natural state.
Bolivian prime minister Evo Morales held up a coca leaf at a U.N. narcotics assembly in 2012, defending the practice of chewing coca and urging the council to reconsider its stance on the leaf. He told the council, “Producers of coca leaf are not drug dealers; consumers of coca leaf are not drug addicts.”
But the outlawing of coca over 50 years ago has led to many continuous problems in Bolivia, including the illegal smuggling of coca paste throughout South America in order to process cocaine. The cocaine trail is a lucrative business that entices poor farmers to sell a portion of their crops to support their families.
Drug cartels hold citizens hostage, run prostitution rings and force violence wherever they are operating. In order to profit through the black market, it is in their best interest to see that nations do not work together to solve problems such as legal coca trade.
In 2011, the Obama administration rejected Bolivia’s proposed amendment to change the treaty and allow citizens to chew coca. A change in policy and cooperation between the United States and Bolivia would not only increase popularity among the nation’s people but would also strengthen drug prevention efforts throughout the region.
The move would allow farmers to legally sell their goods, encouraging them to not trade their crops to drug traffickers. The sales would boost the economy of Bolivia and other South American countries, allowing more resources to be allocated to fighting the real violent criminals.
In turn, the United States would also get more cooperation from the Bolivian government, gain trust and better strategically combat cartels. Not all of the problems with drugs can be solved with a single policy, but together, by working to carefully reform international coca laws, the United States can help reduce poverty and illegal drug operations that are plaguing North and South America.
– Adnan Khalid