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Legalizing Coca Leaf Production
A recent study on the benefits of coca leaf legalization has spurred lobbying efforts in Colombia, with advocates encouraging the country to legalize its production rather than attempting to eradicate the crop. Using coca leaves has been a traditional practice among indigenous South Americans for thousands of years. Before the leaf was harvested and manufactured into cocaine, it was chewed or made into a tea. It provides medicinal and health benefits like treating nausea and can be used for an energy boost.

Before industrialization, when working long days of hard labor, workers—especially some of the underprivileged farmers—would chew coca leaves for the effect of the stimulant but also to satiate hunger pangs while working on an empty stomach. Coca leaves also provide essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamins like A, B1, B6, C and E. Chewing and brewing coca leaves is a natural way of taking dietary supplements.

Peru and Bolivia See Benefits from Legalizing Coca Leaf Production

The government of Peru formed the National Coca Company of Peru (ENACO) in 1949, pushing for legalizing coca leaf production in order to make items and medicines derived from coca leaves. Farmers growing leaves for chewing to be sold to ENACO got their land certified for legal growth in 1978. ENACO does not only cultivate legal coca leaves for local traditional uses, but also sells its products around the world. One of the most common uses is as a natural anesthetic for eye surgery; ENACO is one of two companies that produce coca leaves for this medicinal purpose.

Coca production in Bolivia, however, is more recent. Bolivia has the third world’s largest crop of coca leaves (after Columbia and Peru) with about 67,000 acres used for farming. In 2011, the Bolivian Community Coca Company was founded by the government for the legal cultivation and purchase of coca leaves to be made into flour, ointments, and other products. In 2013, the Bolivian government sought to market coca-based toothpaste to the public with the intention of battling the illicit use of the drug. By using the drug for products like toothpaste or flour, there will be more use of coca leaves for legal industrialization and less for illegal drug trafficking.

How the Legal Coca Leaf Could Help Colombia

Legalizing coca leaf production in the long term could benefit Colombia economically, politically and socially. Allowing coca leaf farms could offset expensive anti-drug efforts like crop substitution, where the government buys out farmers of their current crop and looks to replace it with a different, legal product. However, crop substitution is costly and non-sustainable, especially if the demand for cocaine does not change. If the uses for coca leaves remain the same while their cultivation is restricted by the government, it will merely increase the price of the drug and make crime worse.

Bolivia and Peru are examples of the benefits of legalizing coca leaf production. These countries show that the medicinal benefits can be harnessed to create a market that effectively limits the illicit use of the leaves by taking away from the crops that would be used to make cocaine. Opening a legal market for coca leaves to be made into useful items like flour, ointments, toothpaste and other products would help lower the amount of drug trafficking and create new opportunities for coca leaf farmers to sell this indigenous plant.

– David Daniels
Photo: Flickr

Bolivian-Coca
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 analysis by the United States Library of Congress. That number is much higher today: in 2014, Bolivia’s GDP was $34.18 billion, according 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 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 interests 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

Sources: About Coca Leaf, CNN, Library of Congress, The Guardian, UNTC, Washington Office on Latin America, World Bank
Photo: Indian Country Today Media Network

President Ollanta Humala announced a change in the drug policy. Placing on hold the forcible eradication of coca plants in the Vrae area, a valley noted for its cocaine production from the coca plant, Humala has pushed forward the policy of crop substitutions.

The announcement follows the dismissal of the president’s drug czar, Carmen Masias. The decision signals a reversal in Peru’s approach to the drug production in the Vrae region. Earlier this year, Masias had announced a joint effort of militarized eradication that would be half-funded by the United States.

The previous policy was heavily opposed by the farmers in the region, resulting in protests and threats of resistance. Critics of the policy stated that such efforts would only serve to benefit Shining Path rebels by turning the coca plant growers against the authorities.

The coca plant functions as the region’s only cash crop and many livelihoods are dependent upon the plant. In 2013, the government eradicated 23,947 hectares (One hectare is approximately equal to 10,000 square meters,) a quantity that made little difference once farmers quickly replanted new coca plants.

The valley contains approximately 12,000 families dependent on the coca plant and 300 labs that produce semi-refined cocaine, as well as comprising 54 percent of Peru’s total coca crop production.

Humala has committed $214 million to building roads to help the region ship alternative crops to markets. In addition, the government hopes to reduce the chemicals required to manufacture cocaine.

Although the Vrae region will no longer see forcible eradication, the policy will continue in other parts of Peru. The government aims to eradicate 23,000 hectares in 2014, a decrease from the original goal of 30,000 hectares.

In 2012, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration named Peru the largest cocaine producer, surpassing other cocaine producing countries such as Colombia and Bolivia.

As a component of the U.S. drug war, Peru received $100 million from the U.S. government to combat drug production — half of the U.S. aid that is provided to Peru.

The changing policy of Peru may indicate a growing sentiment in Latin America toward the ravages of the drug war.

Uruguay has become the first Latin American country to legalize marijuana and Bolivia utilizes a voluntary reduction program. Guatemala and Colombia also have been backing changes to the drug policy despite few actual changes to policy.

Critics of the drug war condemn the innocent loss of life that has resulted from the war. Colombia has lost over 15,000 lives, many innocent victims, over the course of its 20-year drug war.

In addition, many believe the influx of funds that are used to combat cartels and drug production could be better used to reduce poverty. For many of the farmers that grow the coca plant, its production is the only crop that provides enough funds to survive.

– William Ying

Sources: Associated Press, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal 1,
Photo: The Economist