Bolivia’s Morales Asks UN to Recognize Legal Coca Use in Letter

Jonathan J. Levin

March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales asked the United Nations to recognize traditional uses of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine, in a letter addressed today to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“Chewing coca leaves is a thousand-year-old practice of the indigenous communities in the Andes mountains that can’t and shouldn’t be prohibited,” Morales wrote, according to a copy of the letter e-mailed by the Foreign Ministry.

Morales has encouraged the industrialization and possible exportation of coca products such as teas and liqueurs since taking office in 2006. Bolivia is the third-biggest producer of coca in the world after Colombia and Peru, and total production was about 28,900 hectares (71,413 acres) in 2007, more than double the 12,000 hectares allowed under Bolivian law, according to the most recent United Nations drug report.

The president, an Aymara Indian and former coca farmer, said in the letter that the leaf is harmless and non-addictive, containing only trace amounts of the alkaloid cocaine.

Morales chewed the leaves at a UN conference on drug policy in Vienna, Austria, yesterday as he asked the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to reverse its 48-year-old decision to qualify the coca leaf as a narcotic, according to official state news agency ABI. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs said chewing of the coca leaf must be abolished within 25 years.

The coca policies “established by the UN in 1961 constitute a threat to the rights of indigenous communities,” Morales wrote.

Morales’s popularity has grown amid a surge in Bolivian nationalism that glorifies indigenous culture and demonizes the U.S. for its coca eradication programs. A new constitution approved in January for the first time protects coca as a cultural heritage and a “factor in social cohesion.”

The Bolivian leader says the problem of drug trafficking should be stopped by curbing consumption in major markets like the United States and Europe.

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