In a recent editorial written for the New York Times, Bolivian President Evo Morales vehemently defends the ancient tradition of chewing coca leaves, saying, "It is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes." Morales then goes on to explain how the custom of chewing coca has been around since 3000 B.C. and that the indigenous people use it to help stave off hunger and maintain the energy necessary to work long hours at incredibly high altitudes.
The coca leaf was deemed illegal back in 1961 at the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Placed in the same category as cocaine, it was ordered that "coca leaf chewing must be abolished within 25 years of this convention." At the time Bolivia agreed to the ruling, the country was suffering under the brutal dictatorship of Col. Hugo Banzer.
The 25-year deadline expired in 2001, essentially making Morales and all other people who chew coca leaves in Bolivia criminals. Morales argues that while coca does have trace quantities of cocaine, it is less than one-tenth of a percent of a leaf and should not be placed in the same category because in order for it to become a narcotic, the cocaine alkaloids must be extracted, concentrated and processed chemically. Morales also makes an interesting comparison to tobacco and caffeine, "Unlike nicotine or caffeine, it causes no harm to human health nor
addiction or altered state, and it is effective in the struggle against
obesity, a major problem in many modern societies."
Morales closes his editorial by explaining why the leaf is so important to Bolivians and other South American countries with rich indigenous heritage, "Today, millions of people chew coca in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina and Chile. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population."
Tell us: What do you think? Should the coca leaf be considered a narcotic, or should it just be reclassified as a plant?