Submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on the cocaine trade

Memorandum on the coca leaf
Transnational Institute (TNI)
June 12, 2009

The attached summary report addresses the myths that surround the coca leaf and is presented to the Committee members in order to allow them to make an evidence-based judgement on its current legal status and on the potential usefulness of coca in its natural form, including in the UK context.

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Main points

1. A review of developments and policies concerning the cocaine market will not be complete without taking into account proposals for dealing with its plant of origin, the coca leaf.

2. Coca leaf – the plant source for cocaine fabrication – in its natural form, is now in the UK unduly classified as a Class A drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act; the evidence base for this classification is untenable and needs to be reviewed.

3. Coca leaf in its natural form should be allowed on the UK market, as a mild stimulant and as an infusion, which could be helpful to support efforts aimed at redirecting demand away from cocaine consumption.

4. Coca tea and other natural coca products have a high potential on the world market and promoting industrialisation and marketing will reduce diversion of coca crops to illicit cocaine production and help develop rural communities now submerged in poverty.

5. The Andean migrant communities in the UK should be allowed the right to access and consume coca leaf as this is a fundamental part of their indigenous culture and tradition, in the case of Bolivia even enshrined in their new Constitution.

Coca Myths

1. The coca leaf has been used – since thousands of years – and misused – since decades – for many ends, each of them suiting different interests and agendas. Even its very name has been appropriated by a soft drinks producer, which has difficulties in admitting that the plant is still used to produce its “black gold”. Every day press accounts around the world use the word coca in their headlines, when they refer in fact to cocaine.

2. Although the claim that coca is part of the identity and history of the Andean/Amazon region is unlikely to be questioned by most countries, a possible removal of the coca leaf from the international control system is still met with considerable scepticism. Discussion has been stuck for too long at the point where it is now, and – sometime in the near future – political decisions will need to be made on coca’s fate and legal status.

3. Many myths surround the coca leaf. Radically opposed views and opinions can be heard in the polemical debates surrounding this plant, and those not familiar with the subject are easily lost among all the apparent contradictions. The debate is politicised and has become subject to extreme ideological positioning. For some the coca leaf is as addictive as its best-known derivative cocaine, while others argue that it can cure half the diseases of modern times. For some, coca growing is the main cause of environmental degradation, while others claim that coca helps to protect the soil and prevents erosion.

4. By identifying the myths in pairs, each of these marking the extreme end of a given subject of debate, our aim is to pinpoint the middle ground where a new evidence-based consensus can emerge regarding coca’s undoubted stimulant, nutritional and therapeutic properties. We consider five areas of current concerns related to: coca and nutrition; coca and alkaloids; coca and addiction; coca and the environment; and, coca and society.


1. Request the ACMD to undertake a review of the coca leaf aimed at a possible reclassification or complete un-scheduling; the current status of the coca leaf under the Misuse of Drugs Act is not based on any scientific evidence.

2. Allow access of natural coca products to the UK market for its potential public health benefits.

3. Respect the cultural and indigenous rights of migrants from traditional coca consuming communities, by allowing them to import and consume coca in the UK, similar to those from other regions (e.g. the Somali community and qat consumption).

4. Support the petition from the Bolivian government to delete the provision from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that calls for an end to traditional coca chewing, and to remove the coca leaf from Schedule I of the 1961 Convention after the required WHO review.