Challenging Prohibition & Pharmaceutical Power: From Coca to Marijuana

The struggle over the reach of international drug control continues. Having failed in an earlier attempt to amend the primary international drug control treaty to protect traditional uses of the coca leaf by indigenous communities in the Andes, Bolivia has declared it will withdraw from the treaty so that it can rejoin to it with reservations. This attempt to expand the circle of people who can legitimately make use of coca leaves—and the hostile reaction to it—provides insight into the economic and political interests that dictate the terms of drug control.
suzanna.reiss 7/14/2011

Bolivia’s attempt to revise the primary treaty governing international drug control, the 1961 Single Convention, to protect traditional uses of the coca leaf by indigenous communities was defeated in January when the United States effectively mobilized opposition to the proposed amendment. However the struggle continues. On June 24, Pablo Solón, the permanent representative to the United Nations of the Plurinational State of Bolivia held a press conference (below) announcing that his government was going to withdraw from the convention and re-accede to it with a reservation that it did not accept the treaty’s mandate that coca leaf chewing be eradicated. This was one of the few procedural moves available to Bolivia given the prior failure to revise the convention. He explained that the majority of the population in the Andes supported Bolivia’s proposed amendment to international drug control, even while the United States and 16 other countries insist that any amendment would threaten the “integrity of the convention.” Bolivia’s withdrawal and re-accession to the Convention would bring the country’s international commitments in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and with recent amendments to its national constitution which explicitly protect the practice of coca leaf chewing.


Press conference by H. E. Pablo Solón, Permanent Representative of Bolivia to the United Nations


The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) officially expressed regret at Bolivia’s move suggesting it contradicted the “Convention’s spirit” and jeopardized international drug control efforts. In contrast, Ambassador Solón emphasized that this action was in “no way” an abandonment of the Convention and quoted the findings of the Global Commission on Drug Policy that described contemporary drug policy as “drug control imperialism.” Scholar Martin Jelsma echoes this perspective and provides useful context and analysis of the INCB’s reaction, explaining that “On the coca issue, the Board has frequently revealed itself to be biased, inflexible and out of touch.” Moreover, he argues, that the Board’s only line of attack was to question the procedural mechanism rather than the substantive issues at stake—something he attributes to “a fear of acknowledging” the limitations of the current treaty system.

Given the fact that the reservation would only apply to Bolivia, and that most informed observers recognize that whatever decisions are made in Vienna or New York coca leaf chewing is not going to end in the Andes, Bolivia’s effort to overcome the current deadlock seems a far cry from challenging the edifice of international drug control (especially in light of their stated commitment to rejoin the Convention.) However, the fear and forceful opposition to the very idea of reclassifying coca leaves under the Convention must be understood as more than simply bureaucratic inertia or as an indication of a growing challenge to the drug control consensus. It is in part both of these things. However, an important and often overlooked aspect of the issue is the role the legal pharmaceutical industry has historically played in defining the parameters of drug control. When the Bolivian government seeks to protect the right to chew coca leaves and other traditional uses of the plant in the Andes it effectively carves out a space of legitimate consumption that does not rely on pharmaceutical manufacturers’ laboratories to transform the raw material into legitimate consumer commodities. As the international drug control regime currently operates, industrial countries’ pharmaceutical companies effectively monopolize the production and distribution of legal drugs; coca leaves only become legal after passing through the pharmaceutical industry. The real challenge posed by the Bolivian proposal is that in reclassifying one particular entity, coca leaves, it establishes the principle that drug control is not merely a system guaranteeing the flow of power and profits into the industrial world, but rather a regulatory apparatus responsive to the well-being and human rights of affected populations.

This moment of contention reveals how the “war on drugs” is in fact a battle over the control of natural resources. A refusal to accept a prohibition on coca leaf chewing is not the equivalent of defending cocaine, even if the INCB describes it as “undoing the good work of Governments . . . in the prevention of drug abuse which is devastating the lives of millions.” Rather, it represents a challenge to the international power dynamics which shape economic development. A similar observation might be made about domestic policy debates in the United States over the legalization of marijuana. Last week, after nine years of stalling, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied a request to lower marijuana’s classification from the most restricted category of drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The DEA ruled that marijuana has no accepted medical use and that it should remain as strictly controlled as heroin or cocaine. This seemingly straightforward assessment is shattered by the fact that the government has sponsored research and approved the manufacturing and sale of pharmaceutical drugs which mimic the effects of marijuana—both synthetic versions of its active ingredients and products that use extracts of the actual raw material. While drug warriors decry any effort to reclassify coca leaves or marijuana as a threat to public health, it is important that we not forget that the logic of drug control is defined by a very narrow definition of public health, one which is tied to the interests of the legal pharmaceutical companies, and powerful political interests in the countries they call home.

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