Bolivia's Morales Wants to Expand Coca Use

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 19, 2006; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- If Bolivian President Evo Morales has his way, you may soon find yourself ordering a cup of mate de coca instead of cappuccino at your favorite cafe.

Morales wants to give thousands of Bolivian coca growers access to new markets. He envisions an expanded use for coca as an ingredient in beverages, chewing gum and toothpaste and as a food-flavoring agent.

Traditionally, the leaf has been used in the Andean region to stave off hunger, cold and fatigue as well as for medicinal and sacred practices. By the 1980s, illegal drug traders had converted Bolivia into one of the world's top suppliers of coca for the lucrative cocaine market.

Morales' plan is the second of a two-pillared drug-fighting strategy. The first is the continuation of conventional methods of cocaine interdiction as well as the crackdown on drug traffickers, money laundering and the importation of chemicals used to make cocaine. Bolivian officials say that some of those conventional efforts have already yielded greater results than in years past.

The second pillar, the so-called "revalorization" of the coca leaf, is the problem. Since the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, coca itself has been classified as an illegal substance as harmful as cocaine or heroin. Morales and many others see this classification as a historical error that needs to be corrected.

"Coca is not cocaine," Morales told the European Parliament this week. How can it be possible, he asked, "that coca is legal for Coca-Cola but it isn't for native peoples and peasants?" Under a special exception in the 1961 Convention, the use of coca leaves as a flavoring agent without their alkaloid component is permissible, an exception that Coca-Cola continues to take advantage of.

Bolivian officials brought a similar message to Washington last week. During a meeting of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, Mauricio Dorfler Ocampo, Bolivia's vice minister for foreign affairs, asked the international community to distinguish between the leaf's legal and illegal uses. He also asked for a change of coca's status in international conventions in order to help his government provide coca growers with viable alternatives to make a living.

So far their request has been received with skepticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Officials fear that legitimizing the leaf will undermine the overall drug war. It would also be a symbolic defeat as Bolivia would surely rise in the ranks of top coca producers after recent and highly praised reductions.

In Washington, officials believe production is increasing already. Anne Patterson, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, says Morales' commitment to coca eradication is "lackluster." On a recent visit to La Paz, she told Bolivian officials that current eradication rates are now half of what they were in 2005.

Officials from other countries in the Americas also have expressed concerns that Morales' plans would mostly favor illegal drug trafficking. Specifically, they fear a worsening of its corrosive effects in their own streets -- where gun-related violence fueled by the cocaine trade is on the rise, as this week's Sao Paulo killings demonstrated.

Under current Bolivian law, cocaleros can legally grow up to 12,000 hectares for traditional domestic consumption, namely coca tea and coca chewing. The European Union has agreed to fund a study to determine a more accurate measurement. Morales sees the study as an opportunity to ensure that the 12,000 figure will increase.

One might say that by arguing that more cultivation is needed, Morales is already recognizing defeat in efforts to stem the supply of coca leaves for the illegal market. Also, it seems naive to think that encouraging coca growers to produce crops for products yet to be marketed would be any more successful than crop substitution has been for overall reduction of illicit coca use. Meanwhile, drug traffickers, with their highly sophisticated means for developing and delivering their product worldwide, would be the first to profit from increased production.

Morales embodies a fundamental change of power in Bolivia that, as he likes to proclaim, is putting the country in the hands of its rightful owners -- the indigenous majority. As part of that change, Morales is expected to assert control over the lands and resources of his ancestors. Morales has already nationalized the hydrocarbon industry. For coca, he wants to develop alternative products.

Yet, the former leader of a coca growers association has a long way to go in convincing the international community that his plan is a novel approach to combat drugs by promoting alternative uses rather than continuing attacks on indigenous coca suppliers.


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