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Bolivia says no to cocaine, but yes to coca

As Latin America debates decriminalizing drugs, nowhere is the coca-cocaine tension more prevalent than in Bolivia, writes guest blogger Jackie Briski.

By Jackie BriskiGuest blogger / March 20, 2012

Women coca growers hold coca leaves during the so-called 'National day of coca leaf-chewing' in La Paz, Bolivia, last week.

Juan Karita/AP


• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

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In many parts of the Andes, tourists can purchase t-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and all manner of other merchandise with the proud slogan “la hoja de coca no es droga,” a simple yet profound statement that means “the coca leaf is not a drug.”

The slogan itself is an indication of a deep tension between those who would use coca leaves for traditional religious and medicinal purposes, and those who would use coca to profit from its narcotic derivative, cocaine.

Nowhere is this coca-cocaine tension more prevalent than in Bolivia. For many Bolivians, it’s a matter of national identity.

Richard Craig provided some background on this in “Illicit Drug Traffic: Implications for South American Source Countries,” published in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 29, No. 2 back in 1987:

In one way or another most Bolivians are involved in a cocacultura. They grow the leaf, ceremonialize it, chew it, drink it, cook it, stomp it, refine it, smoke it, sell it, and seek to eradicate it. Predating the Inca period, coca’s impact on Bolivian culture is such as to render it a virtual national resource.

Domestic policy under President Evo Morales – the Coca Sí, Cocaína No program – is an attempt at striking a balance between supporting traditional uses of coca leaves while cracking down on illicit production and trafficking of cocaine.

In addition to this domestic policy, some refer to the foreign policy strategy of the Morales Administration as “coca diplomacy.”

Since his election in 2006, Morales has advocated global decriminalization of traditional uses for the coca leaf – but not decriminalization of cocaine – through amending the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 to remove all references to the coca leaf.

He raised some eyebrows at his first UN General Assembly in September 2006 by holding up a coca leaf as he made the following remarks:

I should like to take this opportunity to speak of another historical injustice: the criminalization of the coca leaf. This coca leaf is green, not white, like cocaine. … Conditionality-based policies implemented in the past focused on zero coca-leaf production. But zero coca-leaf production is equivalent to zero Quechuas, zero Aymarás, zero Mojeños, zero Chiquitanos. All of that ended with another Government. We are an underdeveloped country with economic problems resulting from the pillage of our natural resources. We are here today to begin to regain our dignity and the dignity of our country.


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