Coca has a unique history in Bolivia: considered a medicinal and religious plant by Indigenous communities, it's often used in teas and to combat altitude sickness.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has welcomed the decision of the country's highest court to declare as constitutional a controversial coca law that will boost legal cultivation.
“Our sacred leaf of coca from our ancestral culture is now valued and protected, instead of prohibited and prosecuted like in the past,” Morales, a former coca campesinos and union leader himself, said Saturday.
The Constitutional Tribunal approved the bill, passed on March 8, on Friday, saying that it was the Bolivian state's duty to protect the leaf.
The bill increases legal cultivation of coca leaves from 12,000 hectares to 22,000, while guaranteeing the Andean nation’s traditional connection to coca. It also allows the government to regulate production, sale and distribution of the leaf.
The sentence put an end to criticism by the Bolivian right-wing, who had argued that the country can already meet its demand for coca without increasing the legal limit for cultivation.
Production of coca dropped 34 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Meanwhile, cultivation rates in other large producers in the region – such as Colombia and Peru – have also fluctuated.
So far, Law 1008 – which was passed in 1986 with the backing of the United States and sought to eradicate coca crops altogether – has resulted in soaring prison populations across Bolivia, where even low-level trafficking attracts years of jail time.
The United States has long supported a militarized drug policy, dictating international prohibition for decades.
Since 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 considered an illegal substance and states are required to implement laws to control their illegal trade and cultivation.
The Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, signed into law by former U.S. President Barack Obama, made it illegal to produce or distribute substances or chemical products with the knowledge or reason to believe they could be illegally imported to the United States.
The 1986 law was in line with the 1961 convention, but in 2013 President Morales successfully requested an exemption to allow the chewing and consumption of unprocessed leaves for “cultural and medicinal purposes.”