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Evo and Coca at the UN

Whatever your views on Evo, coca and the current state of Bolivian politics, it was a pretty spectacular moment.

There at one of the most prominent podiums in the world, before the UN General Assembly and the leaders of nations across the globe, the President of Bolivia whipped out a small leaf, held it aloft and declared, “This is the green coca leaf, it is not white like cocaine. It represents Andean culture. It isn’t possible that it is legal for Coca Cola and illegal for other medicinal consumption in our country and around the world.”

I know there was some conversation before Evo’s visit about how he might get coca to New York to be a part of rituals there during his visit this week. When Bolivian officials contacted the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington the best the institution could come up with were some plastic replicas. I think the real leaf was better.

Good for Evo, good for him for putting the issue front and center in his visit, along with the official Bolivian demand that former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada be returned to the country for trial.

Here is another way he might plant the question. Why can’t Bolivia export coca tea to the US and other markets?

I have served commercially manufactured Bolivian coca tea for years to visitors here, including to a heavy duty Bush backer who once gave me an inaugural neck tie as a present (it came in handy at Halloween), and they all loved it and to my knowledge not a single one turned into a drug addict as a result.

Does a good share of Bolivian coca end up destined for the illegal drug trade? Of course it does (though mainly to Brazil and Europe as opposed to the US). Is that bad? Yes. I spent a good deal of my last years in California helping lead an initiative to expand drug recovery services for pregnant women. It is a fact, so long demonstrated as to be embarrassing, that every dollar spent on eradication in places like Bolivia would deliver far more effect if invested at home to deliver drug treatment on demand. But politics dictates a less sane approach.

Is the coca leaf a narcotic? Far less of one than the coffee I had this afternoon, until it is altered with all manner of other chemicals. Would allowing the free export and import of Bolivian coca tea lead to new production of cocaine around the globe? Anyone want to make a guess how many of those little paper tea bags (yes, like Lipton sells) you’d have to open to get the quantity of leaves needed to make any real quantity of cocaine? Can we get real please?

Here is my point. The war on drugs should be about drugs and it should be real. It should not be about throwing thousands of Bolivian innocents in jail to justify high-paid DEA gigs and State Department boasting. It should also not be aimed at little bags of herbal tea adored by visiting Republicans and Democrats alike.

Holding up a coca leaf before the leaders of the world and explaining the difference. That’s the kind of cajones we could use a little more of from world leaders.


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