March 31, 2017– By Marcelo Alzamora

Earlier this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a bill that raises the limit of coca crops that Bolivian farmers can plant nationally from 12,000 to 22,000 hectares.

Since he assumed the presidency in 2006, Morales has instituted a policy of “Yes to Coca, No to Cocaine” (Coca Sí, Cocaína No). Under the policy, the cultivation of coca for legal purposes has been expanded, while the Bolivian government has ramped up efforts to crack down on the illegal production of cocaine.

President Morales’s efforts to de-vilify the coca leaf – in addition to Bolivia’s expulsion of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2008 – shows that the Latin American leader refuses to play into the larger narrative of Washington’s War on Drugs.

Evo Morales’s election in 2006 was a seminal moment for the Altiplano nation, as he is Bolivia’s first president of indigenous heritage, an alarming fact considering the population of Bolivia is 88 percent indigenous or mestizo (citizens of both European and indigenous ancestry). He is Bolivia’s longest serving president, and he will run for a fourth term in 2019. Morales has been praised for reducing poverty and illiteracy in Bolivia, and his supporters have lauded him as a champion of anti-imperialism, environmentalism, and indigenous rights, especially when it comes to the right to grow and consume the coca leaf.

Morales’ parents were coca farmers, a crop which was one of the first traded goods of the Andes and has remained an important part of the Andean community for over 4,000 years. Many Bolivian families with the same background as the Morales household turned to coca growing for subsistence as its value grew both domestically for its cultural use and abroad because it is an active ingredient in cocaine.

A young Evo joined the coca growers (‘‘cocaleros’’) union, readily opposing the state and U.S.-driven prohibitionist policies that made coca illegal in Bolivia in July 1988, and then sought to eradicate its cultivation altogether. The cocaleros consistently found themselves in violent altercations with law enforcement and the armed forces (Morales himself was arrested in 1994), as they insisted in defending their culture and way of life.

Since taking office, Morales has continued to be the champion for coca and its decriminalization. Despite coca’s classification as an illegal substance under the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, he has continuously lobbied for its international acceptance, even chewing the leaf in front of global leaders at international forums. Bolivia even temporarily withdrew from the Single Convention, only re-acceding when a reservation allowing traditional uses of coca was added.

In Morales’s own words, “Drug trafficking must be fought…and we are doing so more effectively and more wisely. The U.S. uses drug trafficking and terrorism for political control…we have nationalized the fight against drug trafficking. There will not be zero coca, but neither can there be unfettered coca cultivation, because a problem does exist. As long as there is market demand for cocaine, the sacred, natural leaf, the medicinal coca leaf will always be associated with this illegal problem. The root cause of drug trafficking is demand, because the developed countries are not stopping the demand for cocaine.”

In other words, if Washington is interested in putting an end to drug related violence in the hemisphere, they must work with Evo Morales and respect his domestic agenda. This means recognizing that coca is not cocaine and respecting a country’s millennia-old heritage.
But more importantly, it means acknowledging that the developed world does not have all the answers, and cannot impose its societal norms on developing countries.

Marcelo Alzamora is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr (Agência Brasil [1]) [CC BY 3.0 br (], via Wikimedia Commons