A Double Standard for the Single Convention Treaty

Evo Morales In March 2009, Bolivian president Evo Morales stood before the United Nations, a coca leaf in hand, citing a history of use of the plant for purposes social, spiritual, medicinal, and nutritional. The event marked the beginning of a formal request to correct the “historical error” of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs—the agreement that orders people to stop chewing the leaves and mandates the destruction of all wild coca bushes. Morales, a former coca farmer himself, then put the leaf in his mouth, a gesture that sparked applause from the assembly.

Coca chewing has existed in the Andes for thousands of years, and it is practiced by millions of people throughout South America today. Tourists to the highlands are offered coca tea to alleviate altitude sickness, and the plant’s mild stimulant properties have been known around the globe for centuries. The stimulant, of course, is the alkaloid coca-ine, present in trace amounts to the coca chewer, giving users a boost of energy akin to a cup of coffee (which contains caffe-ine, another alkaloid that is potent in concentrated form). When refined, coca provides raw material for the production of cocaine, and in an effort to limit cultivation of the plant, even traditional usage has been prohibited by a worldwide decree.

Efforts to kill the cocaine trade have haphazardly and violently cracked down on anyone who produces or enjoys the natural, unadulterated leaf. This fact might merely be unfortunate and overzealous – but it is also hugely hypocritical. You see, the Single Convention treaty was adopted after years of negotiations led in great part by Harry J. Anslinger, long-time Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Best known today for his fervent campaign against marijuana, Anslinger had a strange relationship with the coca plant: spearheading its prohibition while simultaneously ensuring access to the leaf for a single, powerful consumer, The Coca-Cola Company.

Stepan CompanySince 1903, Peruvian coca has made its way to a manufacturing plant in Maywood, New Jersey, at behest of the beverage company. Over the past century, thousands of tons of leaf shipped to this discreet facility, where cocaine is removed and sold separately (in 1959, the site was acquired by Stepan Company, which maintains the business today. To view Stepan’s latest D.E.A. registration to import coca leaves, click here). For decades leading up to the signing of the Single Convention, Anslinger worked closely with Coca-Cola to procure coca leaf for the “secret formula” of the popular beverage. Anslinger also cooperated with The Coca-Cola Company and Maywood executives on the emerging legislative phraseology, and was their central ally in negotiations leading to the completion of the Single Convention agreement. As it was finally adopted, in addition to banning traditional use of coca leaves, the treaty contains a provision that allows use of the plant for the special purposes of The Coca-Cola Company.

Thus we impose onerous restrictions on use of natural coca leaf by the people of South America, while simultaneously affording the privilege to an American corporation making billions of dollars off the very same leaf. The Coca-Cola Company was involved in the development of law against coca chewing. As a longtime consumer of coca, it should rather align itself with proponents of the plant in advancing a new understanding: in its native form, coca leaf has been used responsibly throughout recent human history.

After Morales’s 2009 initiative to amend the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the United States led a coalition to deny Bolivia’s effort. As a result, Bolivia elected to withdraw from the treaty and then rejoin again—an odd technicality that would allow the country to include a denouncement of coca prohibition amidst its obligation to the convention. On January 10, 2013, against the objections of the United States, Bolivia was granted this small victory.

That minimal, largely symbolic step is not enough. The United States should drop its objection to Bolivia’s desire to cultivate a leaf so closely linked with the cultural identity of its people. That, or we should reconsider the legal loophole that allows an American beverage company to use a plant that is categorically denied to its own native caretakers.

A version of this article was previously published in the New York Daily News as “The Condemned Coca Leaf”

Ricardo Cortés is the author of A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola