With the U.N. moving against coca-chewing in Bolivia, the U.S. may find itself at the wrong end of a relationship with a solid ally.

Picture this: from posh city restaurants to tree-shaded charpoys in the villages of India, people are blissfully chewing paan, or betel nut, as they have done for centuries. Suddenly, United Nations narcotics agents arrive, and either arrest the chewers or confiscate all stocks of the culturally-important product.

While this may never ever be a nightmare scenario for India, a similar situation has been giving a headache to one head of State — President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

With his country pushed into a diplomatic corner owing to the obstinacy of the U.N. system, on June 29 Bolivia's first-ever Aymara Indian President was left with no option but to announce it would exit from one of the most important global conventions on narcotic drugs.

The convention

The temporal provenance of his troubles goes back to 1976 when, under the “brutal dictatorship” of Hugo Banzer, Bolivia signed up to the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (UNSCND). The Convention had on its list of banned substances Bolivia's cultural equivalent of paan — the coca leaf.

Mr. Morales described the chewing of coca leaf as “an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes.” The report that sought its inclusion in the list was criticised for its “poor methodology, racist connotations, and cultural insensitivity.”

A study by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) cited shoddy work by the U.N. inquiry into the coca leaf's properties, which sought to link coca chewing to “a lack of productivity in the work environment because indigenous coca chewing communities... had a poorer job performance when compared with non-coca chewing regions.” But it did not specify how performance was measured, or whether there was any direct causal connection between coca-chewing and productivity.

Coca leaf composition

Writing about the biochemical composition of the coca leaf in The New York Times, Mr. Morales argued that, similar to many other plants, coca leaf had small quantities of chemical compounds called alkaloids. In other plants these include caffeine and nicotine, which have addictive properties, and quinine, which has medicinal properties. While the coca leaf has alkaloids, “the one that concerns anti-drug officials is the cocaine alkaloid, which amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of the leaf.” To be made into a narcotic, the alkaloid needs to be extracted, concentrated and subjected to extensive chemical processing.

Mr. Morales wrote: “What is absurd about the 1961 convention is that it considers the coca leaf in its natural, unaltered state to be a narcotic. The paste or the concentrate that is extracted from the coca leaf, commonly known as cocaine, is indeed a narcotic, but the plant itself is not.”

The fact that a plant, leaf or flower contains a fractional amount of alkaloids does not automatically imply it is a narcotic – certainly not in the eyes of the U.N. So why discriminate against the coca leaf? A more insidious factor driving this debate came up when in 2009 Mr. Morales wrote to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seeking the reform of Article 49 of the UNSCND. He affirmed that “coca leaf chewing is a one-thousand-year-old ancestral practice of the Andean indigenous peoples that cannot and should not be prohibited.” But he was rebuffed. “The U.S. publicly opposed the amendment in an attempt to maintain control and stabilise the prolonged international drug war,” according to the COHA analysis.

The questions

So, is this a fallout of the U.S. offshoring its drug wars and targeting developing countries for supplying cocaine to willing consumers within its own borders? If so, should its primary focus not be on securing its own borders from drug inflows or adopting anti-drug policies to curb domestic consumption? Does it even make sense to go after an iconic cultural symbol of Bolivia especially when over 90 per cent of cocaine coming into the U.S. is anyway from Colombia, according to the U.N.'s own Office on Drugs and Crime?

In any case, under its 2009 Constitution, Bolivia had four years to renegotiate the terms of the UNSCND or adherence to it, or withdraw from the Convention. Facing a wall of opposition by advanced economies, led by the U.S., this condition inexorably led Mr. Morales to announce that Bolivia would exit the Convention.

The U.S. is unlikely, however, to allow Bolivia to exit unpunished. When Bolivia proposed expanding legal-licensed coca farming in 2003, U.S. officials warned that Bolivia might lose most of its $50 million in U.S. aid.

Yet it is the U.S. that may find itself at the wrong end of a relationship with a solid ally in the fight against illegal cocaine production. As the U.S. State Department admitted in a 2008 narcotics report, “During 2007, the Government of Bolivia managed to eradicate more than 6,000 hectares of coca, surpassing its eradication goal of 5,000 hectares. Bolivian counternarcotics units were active in interdiction and lab seizures.”

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