De-vilifying the coca leaf

Samuel Logan
ISN Security Watch
March 9, 2007

Venezuelan funding of new coca leaf processing factories in Bolivia has renewed discussion on the future of licit coca products and US and Bolivian relations, but antiquated policies must be changed.

The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs entered into force in 1964, making illegal the international trade the coca leaf. Since his inauguration, Bolivian President Evo Morales has fought the international stigma that surrounds the coca leaf, taking a simple message to the world: coca yes, cocaine no. Last year, during the UN General Assembly, Morales held coca leaves in his hand while explaining their importance to Bolivian culture and economy.

On 12 March, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will meet in Vienna. It is unlikely the convention will reverse its age-old stance on the legality of the coca leaf. But recent events in Bolivia have attracted attention to the Single Convention, raising questions about the need to support an international regime that maintains an antiquated - and what many consider erroneous - position on the legality of the coca leaf.

In January, workers broke ground on a coca leaf processing factory at Lauca Ene, in Bolivia's Chapare region. The plant is one of two currently planned for construction in The Chapare and Bolivia's Yungas region - both are well-known coca leaf growing regions of Bolivia.

Due to Venezuela's financial involvement, the construction project has attracted international attention, renewing interest in Bolivia's fight to change the negative image of the coca leaf, the possibilities of an international market for finished coca leaf products, and what that market may mean for the future of licit coca production in Bolivia.

Just a leaf

When news about the construction of a coca leaf processing plant hit the international press, many opined on the possibilities of a world market for coca leaf products.

But before these markets can be established, the perception of the plant must be changed, according to Godofredo Reinicke, who has worked with coca leaf farmers in The Chapare for many years. In a recent telephone conversation with ISN Security Watch, Reinicke agreed that the short-term focus should be to convince the world that the coca leaf is not cocaine.

He pointed out the erroneous perception that Bolivians were producing cocaine, which further confuses the issue. Arguments that separate the coca leaf from cocaine must begin by explaining that Bolivians produce coca leaves, and that organized crime produces cocaine.

Both the US and the UN have worked hard to establish the plant as synonymous with the drug. Many would regard them as the same thing. Explaining the difference between a coca leaf and cocaine has been a passionate message led by Morales since before he took office.

The irony is that those closest to the US War on Drugs, the political driver behind demonizing the coca leaf, know of the plant's harmless nature. Only after a process of mashing coca leaves into coca paste, and then cooking that paste until it turns to power, does one render cocaine from the raw material.

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project with the Institute for Policy Studies, argues that bureaucratic inertia, swinging in the direction of propagating the drug war and a supply-side eradication effort, suggests it is easier to maintain the status quo rather than consider an international market for licit coca products and push through a change in the wording of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

"Our understanding of coca has evolved in the past four decades, but the Convention has not," Sanho told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview.

"In the intervening period, however, an enormous global bureaucracy has been established to enforce the drug war through the Convention and that translates into countless jobs and billions of dollars in appropriations," Sanho argued, adding, "Those drug war bureaucrats enforce current policies because they can and it justifies their continued funding."

Sanho pointed out that "trying to equate coca leaf with cocaine is like trying to compare the stimulant effect of coffee to methamphetamine."

"They are worlds apart and only the woefully ignorant would try to equate the two."

Markets for the coca leaf

When Venezuela's ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, announced in January that Venezuela would invest US$250,000 in constructing coca leaf production plants in Bolivia, he said Venezuela would be happy to import all the coca leaf products Bolivia produced.

According to the People's Trade Treaty, signed between Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in April 2006, Venezuela will place no tariffs on importing finished coca products such as toothpaste, soap, candy or tea from Bolivia. But some in Venezuela wonder if a market for coca leaf products will catch hold in Caracas and beyond.

Andy Webb-Vidal, and independent consultant based in Caracas, argues finished coca products are not economically viable in Venezuela. "In Bolivia they've attempted before to find an economically-viable 'industrial' use for coca, such as using it as an input for 'coca shampoo' but it's never been economically-viable," Webb-Vidal told ISN Security Watch.

"If it has not worked in Bolivia there is no reason to think it will in Venezuela," he added.

Jim Shultz, director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center argues that it is tough to gauge whether there is an international market for coca leaf products because none ever existed.

"Coca tea seems to be the product that has the most potential," Shultz told ISN Security Watch.

The US Embassy officially recommends that visitors to La Paz should drink coca tea to ease the effects of altitude sickness often suffered by those who disembark at La Paz's high altitude international airport, he says.

Shultz thinks the best market for a potentially viable coca leaf product like coca tea would be the very place it is least likely to go: the US.

"But the only reason why this is not possible is because coca sits on a UN list of banned substances along with heroin and cocaine."

"Heroin is a banned substance, but that doesn't mean I can't eat a poppy-seed bagel," Shultz pointed out. The poppy flower bud, when properly harvested, yields a sap that is used to produce heroin and other opiate products such as morphine and codeine.

Licit production

The coca leaf production factories should be in operation by September or October, according to various news sources. Reinicke says there could be as many as five facilities around the country.

"These plants could potentially process one to five tonnes of coca leaf a day," Reinicke speculated, careful to note the numbers were based on planners' loose projections, made according to the processing needs of a wide range of products. Initially the plants will produce coca mate, or tea, and a tri-herbal mate made of coca, chamomile and anise.

Alternative development programs pursued by the US to convince coca leaf growers to farm something else have never taken root. Economically speaking, a farmer will never choose to eradicate a whole crop to replant an alternative that has less economic value and is harder to bring to market.

"Rather than search for alternatives to the coca bush, we should be talking about alternatives for the coca leaf," Shultz said.

If coca leaf advocates manage to create an international market for coca leaf products, or in the unlikely event coca tea was imported to the US, a number of positive outcomes might be seen.

International demand for coca leaf products would create a need for raw materials inside Bolivia. The country's coca farmers would then realize greater earnings on their coca crops. As the market grows, Bolivian coca farmers who would normally sell their coca leaves to the black market might see incentives to sell their product in licit markets.

Finally, a decision to allow the legal and controlled import of coca tea into the US would revolutionize the nature of the relationship between that country and Bolivia. Even though this scenario is a long way off, the initial movements toward it began when Venezuelan money helped break ground on a factory that one day could produce coca tea for export to US markets.

"The move strikes me as vintage Chavez, driven by power and politics, aimed at consolidating his alliance with Bolivia and needling and further irritating Washington," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, told ISN Security Watch.

The great irony could be that Chavez, in his constant search for ways to incense Washington, might actually catalyzed the process to bring his South American ally and his sworn enemy closer together.

Concerning the US position against the coca leaf, Sanho Tree shared the words of writer Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." He added that "as long as coca leaf is not refined into cocaine or coca paste, it should not be a concern of the United States or United Nations."