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Latin America Blog

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.

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It turned out that the new head of state had technically smuggled the coca leaves past US Customs officials by hiding them in the book he carried with him onto the plane in order to bring them to UN Headquarters in New York.

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In 2008, Morales took a stronger stand for the national dignity of the Bolivian people by expelling US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials. After suspending DEA operations indefinitely in Bolivia, Morales explained that ”We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people.”

Coca in the Constitution

The Bolivian Constitution was amended in several ways in 2009. Among other things, Bolivia is now officially defined as a  unitary plurinational state, or a country comprised of many different people groups, but with one sovereign central government.

But the Constitution also provides the following provision on coca in Part Four, Title II, Chapter Seven, Section II, Article 384 (in Spanish):

The State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. Its revaluing, production, commercialization, and industrialization shall be regulated by law.

This particular amendment has served to formalize the tension between international convention and constitutional law in Bolivia.

More recently, Morales made a strong statement by formally withdrawing Bolivia from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in June 2011, effective Jan. 1, 2012, since diplomatic efforts had failed to lead to the Convention’s amendment.

The Morales Administration was careful to specify that the objection was only with the classification of the coca leaf, and that the Bolivian government would ensure continued compliance with the rest of the terms of the 1961 Single Convention and the Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1972.

Comparative Advantage

The coca-cocaine tension is further complicated by an economic theory known as comparative advantage.

This principle states that when it comes to trade relations, states should specialize in trading the goods that they can produce with the greatest relative efficiency at the lowest relative cost when compared to other states–giving them a comparative advantage in that particular good.


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