Bolivia’s senate voted Friday to nearly double land allocations for the legal cultivation of coca in an expansion of the country's progressive approach to coca policy, which has led to an overall decrease in coca production. The bill now awaits the approval of President Evo Morales, who has spearheaded Bolivia's approach to coca cultivation aimed at cutting down illicit production while also respecting Indigenous practices.
The bill – drafted with input from coca growers – boosts legal cultivation areas from 12,000 hectares to 22,000, and creates new mechanisms for the government to regulate production, sale and distribution of coca. Morales, a former coca farmer, is expected to sign the bill into law.
Coca has a unique history within the Andean country and is considered a medicinal and religious plant by Indigenous communities. It is often used in teas and as a way to combat altitude sickness.
Instead of a opting for prohibition approach to the plant, Morales’ government has helped further develop schemes with coca-growing communities, allowing farmers to grow the plant in line with legal quotas while also finding sustainable alternatives to coca cultivation. Up to certain quantities, it is legal to buy and sell unprocessed coca leaves in Bolivia.
“The important thing has been to stop demonizing the coca leaf, to decriminalize it, to release it,” Senate president Alberto Gonzales said. “We are talking about a noble, sacred leaf that did not deserve to be stigmatized in the way it was for almost 30 years,” he continued.
Bolivia’s policy of allocating land for legal cultivation has been used as a strategy to cut down overall cultivation and combat the illicit drug trade. Coca cultivation in the country dropped 34 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Other large coca producers in the region, such as Colombia and Peru, have seen their cultivation rates rise and fall over the same period.
The new bill has been criticized by the Bolivian right-wing, who say that the country can already meet its demand for legal coca without increasing the legal limit for cultivation.
Despite being hailed as a success by the Bolivian government and the majority of farmers, Bolivia’s coca policy has ruffled some feathers internationally, most notably from the U.S.
Wide-reaching U.S. drug policy, which has dictated international prohibition for decades, deems that coca leaves are a controlled illegal substance. The Transnational Drug Trafficking Act signed into law by former president Barack Obama makes it illegal to produce or distribute substances or chemical products with the knowledge or reason to believe they could be illegally imported to the U.S.
Given the flow of cocaine from Bolivia to the U.S., coca producers could be considered part of the drug trafficking business and be sanctioned in the U.S. Morales, however, has slammed U.S. drug policies as an imperialist project.
Earlier in the week, the Bolivian city La Paz saw protests from coca farmers calling for cultivation limits to be completely lifted.