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Debate: Legality of coca production and consumption

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Should coca leaf growth, product-development, and chewing be legal?

Background and context

This debate centers in large part around the Andean countries of Bolivia and Peru, where coca leaf production and chewing is legal [with limits], but where cocaine production and use is illegal. This kind of policy is known by some as a "coca yes, cocaine no." Andean northwestern Argentina also allows for coca chewing, and there is widespread support for allowing indigenous Andeans in Columbia and Ecuador to do the same.
Most all of South America believes that Andean peoples have the right to continue their millennia-long tradition of coca use. Bolivia exists at the center of the international fight to legalize coca. President Evo Morales has lead this charge, in particular advocating that the UN Narcotics Commission change the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that forbids the production and use of coca. President Morales generated headlines by chewing coca while attending a meeting of the commission in 2009 and 2011. The debate on the topic surrounds a number of questions: Does coca qualify as a narcotic? Or, is it similarly mild to things like Caffeine and Nicotine? Does coca qualify as a narcotic simply by virtue of the ease by which cocaine can be extracted? Is coca addictive? Does it have health benefits (for energy, altitude sickness, or as a painkiller)? Does its traditional use by indigenous Andeans offer it special protections? Does disallowing it violate indigenous rights? Is legal coca detrimental to anti-cocaine efforts? These and other pros and cons are considered below.
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Narcotic? Can coca be classified as a narcotic?

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Pro

  • Coca is not cocaine. Coca is distinct from cocaine. Coca is a natural leaf with very mild effects when chewed. Cocaine is a highly processed and concentrated drug using derivatives from coca.
  • Coca consumption is most akin to caffeine use. "Coca yes, Cocaine no?" Drugs and Conflict Debate Papers. 2006: "Because of its effects, coca would fit better into a category similar to that of caffeinebased plant stimulants — coffee, tea, guaraná and yerba mate. Because of the way it is assimilated, including the use of an alkaline reagent, its use would be more similar to the oriental custom of chewing the areca nut (areca catechu) wrapped in betel leaves (piper betle) and mixed with lime."
  • Component parts of other drugs aren't banned. The raw component parts of other drugs like meth are not banned. These components are a variety of household cleaning compounds. Similarly, it is wrong to ban coca because it can be turned into cocaine.
  • Coca has no negative health effects. The World Health Organization found in 1995 that the “use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.”[2]
  • Chewing coca offers an energy boost. Coca provides an energy boost for working or for combating fatigue and cold.[3]
  • Chewing coca has therapeutic value for various ailments. Chewed or consumed as tea, coca counters altitude sickness, aids digestion and quells hunger and fatigue.
  • Coca chewing can help relieve hunger, fight obesity. Because coca helps suppress one's appetite, it is also a means of combating overeating and obesity. Evo Morales made this argument in a NYTimes Op-Ed in 2009.
  • Coca chewing is a habit not an addiction. There is no evidence that one becomes chemically addicted to cocaine. Rather, cocaine chewing is a habit among Andeans.


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Con

  • Coca is narcotic because cocaine can be readily extracted. WHO. In 1992 the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) undertook a ‘prereview’ of coca leaf at its 28th meeting. The 28th ECDD report concluded that, “the coca leaf is appropriately scheduled [as a narcotic] under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, since cocaine is readily extractable from the leaf."[4] This ease of extraction makes coca and cocaine inextricably linked. Therefore, because cocaine is defined as a narcotic, coca must also be defined in this way.
  • Coca cannot be disassociated with cocaine. The active ingredient in coca leaf is the same as in cocaine. It's just more concentrated in cocaine. Because the raw material of coca and its more potent relative cocaine are so closely aligned, it is impossible to disassociate the two. If one hopes to consider cocaine a narcotic and stop its spread, they must also forbid coca.
  • Cocaine is most produced where coca is legal. Wherever coca is legally produced, cocaine production thrives with greater success. The correlation is very clear. In Bolivia, coca eradication efforts in the 1980s and 90s helped reduce cocaine production. As Evo Morales took power and legalized coca production and consumption, however, cocaine production has shot up. This is despite his efforts to fight cocaine production. The bottom line is that legalizing coca makes it easier for cocaine producers to operate. This correlation cannot be ignored.
  • Coca chewing is bad for human health. The decision to ban coca chewing fifty years ago was based on a 1950 report elaborated by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Coca Leaf with a mandate from ECOSOC: "We believe that the daily, inveterate use of coca leaves by chewing ... is thoroughly noxious and therefore detrimental."[5]
  • Coca is not like caffeine/nicotine due to alternative use. Again, coca is unique from other substances like caffeine or nicotine in its capacity to be diverted to highly potent, dangerous, and damaging use in cocaine.
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Tradition: Does coca have an inviolable tradition?

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Pro

  • Banning coca chewing violates indigenous rights. Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, said in January of 2011: "How can it be possible that the coca leaf, which represents our identity, which is ancestral, be penalized."[6]
  • Coca chewing pre-dates cocaine, shouldn't bundled. Coca chewing far pre-dates cocaine use. It has existed for thousands of years. Cocaine has only a hundred year history. It is wrong, therefore, to ban coca use due to the modern difficulties with cocaine - it's unfair to the legacy of coca.
  • Coca chewing in the Andes is like coffee in the West. Coca is an essential stimulant in daily life in the Andes, just as coffee is in the West. It is consumed by millions of indigenous people. Trying to ban it is just futile.
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Con

  • Coca chewing for cultural, not medical, reasons is unjust. Latvia opposed Bolivia's 2011 proposed amendment to the UN's narcotics treaty with the following language: that because the purpose of Bolivia’s amendment is “to maintain a habit and socio-cultural practice, not a medical or scientific purpose,” coca leaf chewing still needs to be abolished.[7]
  • Tradition of coca consumption is a poor argument. Continuing a tradition is always a weak argument in defense of a policy. Traditions need to stand on their own merits, beyond the simple fact that people have done it in the past.


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War on drugs: Is coca consistent with broader anti-drug fight?

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Pro

  • Coca yes, cocaine no is a workable policy. Evo Morales said in 2009 to a UN meeting of the Commission for Narcotic Drugs: "We're for the coca leaf but against cocaine. The coca leaf should no longer be vilified and criminalized!"[8]
"Coca yes, Cocaine no?" Drugs and Conflict Debate Papers. 2006: "While it is true that cocaine cannot be produced without the coca leaf, and there is insufficient guarantee that cocaine would not be extracted from decriminalised and industrialized leaves, the debate cannot remain stuck on this point indefinitely. Ideally, there would be mechanisms and policies to allow the plant and its derivatives to co-exist without this necessarily signifying an increase in harmful consumption."
  • If coca legal, farmers will change from illegal cocaine. If legalized, farmers will shift their production of coca from cocaine-purposed coca to open market coca production. Legal production is much more secure from government action.
  • Wrong to ban local coca to prevent foreign cocaine consumption. Pasquale Quispe, 53, owner of a 7.4-acre Bolivian coca farm, explained to the New York Times in 2006: "Coca is our daily bread, what gives us work, what gives us our livelihood. In other countries, they say coca is drugs, but we don't use drugs. It's the gringos who use drugs."[9]
  • All South American states support indigenous right to coca. All South American countries have signed several declarations by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) that acknowledged that the chewing of coca leaves is an ancestral cultural expression that should be respected by the international community.[10] +
  • Coca production can be monitored/limited to hedge cocaine. In Bolivia, coca production is legal, but within strict limits. Only a certain amount of the stuff can be grown, and amounts exceeding these numbers are subject to eradication. Bolivia excepted $250,000 from the US in April of 2011, for example, for satellite monitoring of its coca fields. This helps ensure that coca is not excessively grown for use in cocaine; much more coca is required to produce cocaine than is required for natural consumption such as chewing. This is just one way in which coca production can be regulated to ensure against abuse in cocaine production.
  • Cocaine producers, not coca producers, should be targeted. Pacífico Olivares, 49, a regional leader of coca farmers: "What blame do we have when we don't make cocaine? They should chase down the people who make cocaine."[11]


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Con

The legality of coca production will not reduce the cocaine market. If the production of coca is allowed, which means that the production of the material of the drug is allowed, then the frequency and the amount of production of cocaine will surely increase. Therefore, the policy will not help to fight with drugs, but to help the drug sellers to easily sell cocaine.


  • Coca exception undermines integrity of drug war The Vienna-based UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said exceptions for Bolivia would undermine international narcotics control efforts: "[Allowing coca] would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system, undoing the good work of governments over many years."[12]
  • Allowing coca undermines successful eradication efforts. Coca crop eradication has been the main pillar of anti-cocaine efforts around the world. It worked in Columbia and it worked in Bolivia for over twenty years leading up to Evo Morales' administration. Legalizing coca production and chewing obviously runs completely counter to such successful eradication efforts.
  • Coca production feeds cocaine production. A US official said in January of 2011: "there is evidence to suggest that a substantial percentage" of the increased coca production in Bolivia over the past several years, registered in U.N. surveys, "has indeed gone into the network and the marketplace for cocaine."[13]
  • Letting coca bloom undermines anti-cocaine efforts "This idea that he's going to go after traffickers but letting the coca bloom is tough seeing as workable," according to a high-ranking US Congressional aide on anti-drug policy who was interviewed by the NY Times in 2006. "It's a naïve, pie-in-the-sky approach to let the flower bloom but interdict the bouquet."[14]
  • Cocaine content is too easily recovered from coca. The easy recoverability of cocaine from coca makes coca production an inherent hazard and liability for the production of cocaine.
  • Impossible to stop coca from being diverted to cocaine. "Bolivia's Knot: No to Cocaine, but Yes to Coca." The New York Times. February 12th, 2006: "On a narrow mountain pass shadowed by craggy peaks, Lt. Col. Julio Cruz and his police unit stop vehicles leaving Yungas, checking the 50-pound sacks of coca leaves and making sure they are headed to the legal market. On some days, 500 vehicles carrying more than 150,000 pounds of coca pass through the checkpoint, Colonel Cruz said. But after this checkpoint, the police say, they have no way to know how much is diverted for illegal purposes. 'The leaf comes out legally,' Colonel Cruz said. 'But once out, it goes to labs for cocaine. We cannot escort every truck to market.'"


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Balloon effect: Are eradication efforts doomed to failure?

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Pro

  • Ineffective eradication efforts suffer from "balloon effect." "Coca Production Makes a Comeback in Peru." New York Times. June 13th, 2010: "The increase [in Coca production] in Peru offers a window into one of the most vexing aspects of the American-financed war against drugs in Latin America, which began in earnest four decades ago. When antinarcotics forces succeed in one place — as they recently have in Colombia, which has received more than $5 billion in American aid this decade — cultivation shifts to other corners of the Andes. This happened in the 1990s, when coca cultivation shifted to Colombia after successful eradication projects in Peru and Bolivia. More recently, coca growers moved to dozens of new areas within Colombia after aerial spraying in other areas. Scholars of the Andean drug war call this the balloon effect, bringing to mind a balloon that swells in one spot when another is squeezed."


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Con

  • Balloon effect occurs because some are weak on eradication. The balloon effect often occurs simply due to inconsistent eradication policies in South America; while one country like Columbia is strong on eradication, other countries like Peru and Bolivia grow soft and even legalize or decriminalize the growth and chewing of coca. This has allowed production of cocaine to "balloon" in Peru and Bolivia. This all suggests that the solution is simply to ensure that all countries adopt strong eradication policies. If this happens, there would be no place for production to "balloon", eradication would work, and cocaine supply would be successfully curbed internationally.
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Coca products: Does coca have a variety of product applications?

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Pro

  • Coca can be used in a variety of products "Coca yes, Cocaine no?" Drugs and Conflict Debate Papers. 2006: "The most famous non-pharmaceutical industrial uses are in Vin Mariani and Coca-Cola. Both opened up large markets as natural stimulants used in different strata of society. Coca-Cola changed its formula in 1906, using the coca leaf as a flavouring agent without alkaloids; this was later made legitimate under Article 27 of the Single Convention of 1961. The separation of the cocaine alkaloid from the leaf, producing a substance that is used to flavour the drink without the alkaloid, is one of the best-kept industrial secrets in the history of the world. There are many other products in both Bolivia and Peru that have a modest domestic market. The supply ranges from products that seek to take advantage of the leaf’s nutritional value — although many of its valuable components, such as calcium and certain vitamins, can be obtained as well or better from other plants — and products that emphasise its energising value (syrups and teas) or anaesthetic properties (salves), etc. There are also cosmetic products (toothpaste and shampoo). There are various products whose scientific basis is not clearly proven, and there are no clear indications that coca is better than other ingredients for the preparation of the final product — although this could also be due to the stigma attached to coca, as well as the limited availability of technological means."
  • Coca can be used as a local anesthetic. "Coca yes, Cocaine no?" Drugs and Conflict Debate Papers. 2006: "One of the main properties of the coca leaf, which has been and continues to be used industrially, is its medical potential as an anaesthetic and analgesic. This characteristic of cocaine, which was part of ancestral practices and knowledge in the Andean-Amazon region, came to light in the 1880s and led to a revolution in medical science, particularly in surgery. As a local anaesthetic, it offered an alternative for operations that had previously been painful and hazardous. These properties were used to ease childbirth pains and dental treatments, among other things, taking the coca leaf and cocaine rapidly to the pinnacle of pharmacology and medicine."
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Con

Surely cocaine is used in some ways that is significant, but those are replaceable by other kinds of materials. Also, even if cocaine is not replaceable, we have to deal with those harms getting from those needed places, as none of them would be more important then saving people from the addiction of the drugs, which surely ruin one's life.


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Economics: Is coca important economically?

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Pro

  • Coca eradication harms economy and poor farmers. "Bolivia's Knot: No to Cocaine, but Yes to Coca." The New York Times. February 12th, 2006: "The eradication of so lucrative a crop, however, had serious social and political repercussions for a desperately poor country where coca and cocaine had become a leading industry. With their losses rising into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Chapare's coca farmers, often led by Mr. Morales, protested, blocked roads and battled security forces, sometimes with fatal consequences. The unrest so weakened the central state that two presidents were forced to resign in the 20 months ending in June 2005."


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Con

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Pro/con sources

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