Coca Zero

Drug war goes native


Indigenous people in Bolivia and Peru have been growing, chewing, and drinking tea made from coca plants for thousands of years. It's used habitually in these poor countries to stave off hunger, pain, thirst, and fatigue; as a mild stimulant; and in religious rituals. The United Nations now says this has to stop—in order to facilitate the developed world's war on processed cocaine.

The U.N.'s drug enforcement agency, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), recommended in March that Bolivia and Peru criminalize the chewing of coca leaves and the boiling of the leaves to make tea. The move has triggered widespread protests in both countries, which trail only Colombia in annual coca production.

In 1961 the U.N. aimed to eradicate all global coca crops. Since 1988, however, it has tolerated the plant when it is grown for leaf chewing and tea drinking. The INCB now wants to return to its original, more sweeping goal, arguing that chewing coca leaves sets one on the path to cocaine dependence, an assertion experts say isn't backed by any scientific data.

The U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, told the Associated Press in 2006 that the "only" use for coca leaves is cocaine. That claim is belied by the fact that 115 tons of decocainized leaves are imported each year by an Illinois-based chemical firm that then sends them to the Coca-Cola Company to flavor its famous soft drink.

Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, was elected in part because he presented himself as a champion of the cocaleros, or Andean coca farmers, promising to protect the plant in the face of mounting efforts by the U.S. and U.N. to prohibit it in all of its forms. After having spent more than $5 billion in its failed Latin American coca eradication efforts, the U.S. nevertheless intends to keep up the pressure. When Morales announced that he would attempt to raise the quota on the amount of coca each citizen of Bolivia is permitted to grow for personal use, the U.S. responded by slashing aid to the country by 25 percent.