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  • Bolivian President Evo Morales holding coca leaves.

    Bolivian President Evo Morales holding coca leaves. | Photo: AFP

Published 8 March 2017

Bolivian President Evo Morales said the new law "was a historic day" for the country, where imperialistic drug policy has attempted to divide Bolivians. 

Amid decades of prohibitionist international drug policy spearheaded by the U.S., Bolivia has further advanced its progressive drug policy by increasing its legal cultivation of coca leaves from 12,000 hectares to 22,000. The move will not only cut out the illicit trade of the plant, but also ensure the Andean nation’s traditional connection to coca.

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Wearing a necklace made of coca leaves, President Evo Morales – a former coca farmer himself – said he was proud of the new law after he signed it into effect on Wednesday morning in the government palace in La Paz.

Morales spoke of the how the traditional leaf for his people had become increasingly industrialized through imperialism. He explained how Europe was the first to industrialize the plant which led to the leaf being “demonized,” which only increased once “the production of coca leaves began to be diverted to cocaine.”

Addressing international critics of Bolivia’s progressive drug policy Morales explained that critics aimed to divide Bolivians. “This ideology of division is characteristic of imperialism: Divide and reign.”

Morales criticized the neoliberal laws that came to Bolivia from the U.S and added that the new law was dignified because “we do it ourselves.”

In particular, Morales heavily criticized law 1008, a U.S. backed anti-drug law which has resulted in soaring prison populations in the country, where even low-level trafficking attracts years of prison time. “It's time to bury the 1008 law in Bolivia. It's a historic day!” Morales declared.

The president said that he could not understand how “traitors” could defend the 1008 law adding that “I feel this is an ideological struggle that is going to be permanent.”

Approved by the country’s senate in February and drafted with the input of coca growers, Wednesday's change will not only boost legal cultivation, but allow the government to regulate production, sale and distribution of the leaf. In line with a 1986 Bolivian law, just 12,000 hectares are allowed to supply Bolivia's legal coca market.

Under Morales, Bolivia has developed schemes with coca-growing communities where farmers can grow plants up to certain legal levels while also encouraging other sustainable crop alternatives to coca.

But like virtually all drug policy, international conventions dominated by Western countries have significant sway is deeming not only what is legal and illegal but how other countries carry out their drug policy.

Since its birth in 1961, the Single Convention on Narcotics has been pushed internationally as a means of standardizing illicit drug policy around the world. Under the convention, coca leaves are a controlled illegal substance and states are required to implement laws to control their illegal trade and cultivation.

The 1986 law was seen as in line with the 1961 convention. Then in 2013, Bolivia successfully requested an exemption from the convention to allow the chewing and consumption of unprocessed leaves for “cultural and medicinal purposes.”

Only 15 out of United Nations members rejected the request, including the U.K. Japan, Mexico, Russia and unsurprising the U.S.

In Bolivia, a country that has used the leaf since the times of the Incas, coca is commonly used in Indigenous medicine and to combat altitude sickness. President of Bolivia’s Chamber of Deputies, Gabriela Montaño, estimates that around 3.3 out of 11 million Bolivians currently consume coca leaves in a line with traditional methods.

Additionally, 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 that they end up in U.S. territory.

The U.S. has also criticized other Latin American countries for setting a supposedly dangerous precedent away from international drug norms. In particular, Uruguay's decision to become the first country in the world to legalize marijuana has come under fire.

Critics of the new coca bill have persistently argued that Bolivia already has a high surplus of coca leaves that end up in the illegal market. If the quota is raised under the new bill, they say, more will inevitably end up in the illicit markets.

On Feb. 28, days after the bill was approved by the Senate, 50 intellectuals signed a public letter rejecting the new law, arguing that “this rule would be making more than 11,000 metric tons of drug a year available to drug traffickers. Coca leaf, resulting from the average yield of 8,000 hectares granted by law to producers.”

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Despite outside criticisms, the new bill is seen to build on an already successful policy. Bolivia is estimated to be the world's third-largest producer of coca leaves, behind Colombia and Peru.

Coca cultivation in the country dropped 34 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Colombia and Peru, on the other hand, have seen cultivation rates rise and fall over the same period.

Cocaine seizures in Bolivia decreased from 22.3 tons in 2014 to 21.2 tons in 2015, the lowest levels recorded since 2007, according to the most recent annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board, INCB, released in March.

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