UN needs to chew on its drug policy

Steven Edwards
National Post (Canada)
Thursday, March 6, 2008

We don’t ban beer and spirits because some folk abuse alcohol. Yet as part of its bid to stamp out illicit cocaine consumption, the United Nations drug watchdog is telling millions of indigenous South Americans to ditch their millennia-old coca-chewing and coca tea-making traditions — and calling on their governments to criminalize the activities.

The Vienna-based sages of the International Narcotics Control Board say they’re "concerned" about the cultivation of the coca bush for "purposes that are not in line" with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Please excuse many if not all of the 11 million Quechua speaking and other descendants of the Andean-based Incas for not having heard of this particular document.

Obviously growing coca to produce powdered cocaine for street sale in developed countries contravenes the treaty.

But so too do "coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of mate de coca [coca tea]," according to the INCB annual report, released yesterday.

Clearly the framers of the 1961 convention and its 1972 amendments were either ignorant of — or indifferent to — indigenous traditions when they wrote that production and trade in the coca leaf should be reserved for "medical and scientific purposes."

The document contains nothing about making allowances for successive generations of indigenous Andeans who have relied on the numbing energy boost that comes from chewing coca leaves to get them through gruelling and often food-less work days at high altitude.

No exceptions either for the medicinal benefits South America’s indigenous peoples ascribe to coca tea, used widely as a pain reliever.

Though books exist on the subject, the source of my "insight" is my Colombian wife’s indigenous heritage.

She recalls her grandmother taking coca leaves into the hills as a substitute both for food and to "give her the strength" to get through the long day of backbreaking fieldwork.

Her father speaks of the skill needed to chew on a leaf because of the burning sensation it will cause if it comes into contact with the lips.

"You eat it with a ’mambi’, " he says, using a word of the east Andean Inga language to denote specially selected earth cooked for a week into the shape of a tiny bun around which roasted leaves are wrapped.

Nothing is swallowed, rather the chewer progressively spits out the mix of saliva, juices and the ever-reducing mambi.

Your average snorter at some "cocaine-chic" Hollywood party would surely be quite horrified — but it’s all one and the same to the UN.

My wife says chewing was for adults only, but the children loved eating the sweet cherry-coloured fruit of the trees.

The tea was taken to treat "piquete" — a Spanish word used in Inga to denote "sharp pain."

The Colombian government’s U.S.-backed programs have since eradicated that region’s coca plants.

The INCB recommendations are directed mainly at the governments of Bolivia and Peru, where millions of indigenous people continue to practice traditional coca leaf consumption.

Dr. Philip Emafo, INCB president, said in an interview it’s the board’s job to push for implementation of international drug laws, and countries that object on cultural grounds should seek amendments.

But the INCB contradicts itself by pledging in the report’s foreword to apply "respect for national sovereignty ... and for the rich diversity of people, cultures, customs and values."

INCB also monitors implementation of the 1988 anti-trafficking convention, which states "measures adopted shall ... take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use."

In its report, INCB addresses that by saying the 1988 provisions "should not absolve" countries of their obligations under the 1961 and other treaties.

It also points to a clause in the 1961 treaty that says coca chewing should be abolished 25 years after the document comes into force. That occurred in 1964 with the 40th national ratification, Canada’s among them.

Notwithstanding all the legal mumbo-jumbo, it’s too bad common sense can’t rule the day, and indigenous traditions be left alone.