Morales to Propose Decriminalization of Coca at UN
March 10, 2009 -

By Jonathan J. Levin

March 10 (Bloomberg) -- Bolivian President Evo Morales heads to Vienna today to ask a United Nations commission to reverse its 48-year-old decision to qualify the coca leaf as a narcotic, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said.

The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs also said chewing of the coca leaf, the raw ingredient in cocaine, must be abolished within 25 years. Coca is consumed widely by Bolivians who say it helps them endure long hours at high altitudes and quell hunger. The leaf is also used in religious ceremonies.

“We believe the ‘61 convention is unjust; one can’t criminalize a natural plant,” Choquehuanca said late yesterday. Morales is scheduled to speak tomorrow.

Morales, a former coca farmer, 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. Morales says he opposes cocaine production and that the drug needs to be managed by controlling consumption in the U.S. and Europe.

“We can’t go against a culture, and that’s what the international community has to understand,” Choquehuanca said.

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.”


Choquehuanca also said the coca leaf has nutritional value.

Morales yesterday ordered the expulsion of U.S. diplomat Francisco Martinez, saying he conspired with opposition groups against the government. He didn’t elaborate on the reasons for the expulsion.

Morales declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg “persona non grata” in September and ordered the expulsion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Nov. 3, accusing both of trying to undermine his government.

U.S. State Department press officer Fred Lash said the U.S. rejects the accusation.

“While this behavior might yield political dividends in Bolivia, it certainly does not bode well for efforts to solve our differences through honest dialogue and positive actions,” U.S. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan J. Levin in La Paz at