Prohibitionist Insanity across the Board from Bolivia’s Candidates


Español“A failure” is how the Bolivian representative for the Organization of American States at the General Assembly described prevailing drug policy. The diplomat’s declaration was a shock compared to the cryptic and soft line of messages on the theme that preceded his statement.

However, as the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words,” especially when the words come from diplomats who proceed in a carefully calculated manner to achieve a desired effect.

Despite the Bolivian’s statement, his own country is far from radical on drug-policy reform. None of the candidates who will vie for the presidency on October 12 have included any plans to a change of course in their platforms, be that decriminalization or legalization of drug sales and consumption.

La hoja de coca es el eje del debate sobre la política de drogas en Bolivia.
The coca leaf figures at the center of the drug policy debate in Bolivia. (James Savage)

Bolivia’s Peculiar Context

While growing coca in Bolivia is widely illegal, there are special provisions allowing coca plantations in historic producing regions. Bolivian officials have tried to dissuade illegal coca growers; however, neither crop-substitution programs nor eradication have proved successful.

In fact, Bolivia is the third-largest producer of coca leaf in the world, after Peru and Colombia, with 25,300 hectares sown each year, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Chewing pure coca leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine production, is also an ancient tradition in the region.

Even in the reformed 2008 constitution, President Evo Morales constitutionally designated Erythroxylum coca a part of the nation’s cultural heritage:

The state protects the original and ancestral coca as cultural heritage, a natural, renewable resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. The value, production, sale and industrialization of the leaf will be governed by law.

What Do the Candidates Say?

A report from the Bolivian newspaper La Opinion has presented the candidates’ positions.

Evo Morales is running for a third term under the Socialist Movement (MAS) ticket, and he insists on approaches that sound nice to the ear. Upon implementation, though, they will clearly amount to the failure of an obsolete, repressive strategy.

“Reduce sales: strengthen the mediums for controls and bans, better control of border zones. Ban and repress micro-trafficking, especially in vulnerable areas near schools. Disrupt drug-trafficking organizations and capture their members,” the MAS program proposes.

Further, in terms of consumption, he proposes reduction through implementation of “strategies and preventative programs against drug and alcohol consumption in social, educational, and family settings.”

The question facing these proposals, however, remains. What are the incentives for coca producers not to divert their production to drug traffickers who offer a much more profitable business than the legal coca market?

Green Party Bolivia, with Fernando Vargas Mosúa as its presidential candidate, has an idea to address this question: a compensation of US$10,000 per hectare that coca producers use for other plants. Keep in mind that goodwill is not always enough: some coca producers could be tempted to accept “easy money,” while others with a more long-sighted outlook will continue to supply the market with illegal cocaine.

Julio Alvarado, the Christian-Democrat Party candidate, promotes the following grandiose promise: “We are going to halt organized crime.” To achieve this end, he proposes that the state will assume a monopoly over the sale of coca leaves that are generally destined for the drug trade.

“We are going to nationalize surplus coca,” he says. “We are going to industrialize it, convert it into organic fertilizer, or in the worst case, burn it, but it will not go to drug trafficking; we are going to slow cocaine production.”

This is yet another exercise in foolhardiness. If the mandates of law and government to eliminate drug trafficking have consistently been ineffective, why would new laws and government plans be successful this time?

Democratic Unity candidate, businessman Samuel Doria Medina, also fails to bring anything new to the table, as his spokesman, Carlos Hugo Laruta, has revealed.

“We need to apply an anti-drug policy from production to consumption, and be capable of offering global solutions to a complicated problem, generating alternatives to coca plants, pursuing the transformation of the drug trade. We will give the Special Forces for the War on Drugs (FELCN) more resources and powers, quickly creating an anti-drug justice system that will reinforce the anti-drug judiciary branch,” Laruta said.

Finally, the proposal coming from Fearless Movement candidate Juan Manuel Granado also proposes economic incentives to disrupt the drug trade: “This economic complementarity will be based on crops, citrus, cocoa, coffee, and other profitable products, not to replace the coca leaf, whose projects need investment and promotion. We will provide training for farmers in the implementation of respective complementary industries to guarantee that the market production and sale of these items occur at a fair price across the country.”

The Regional Future of Drugs

In Bolivia, the likelihood of actual drug-policy reform looks slim. But who would have thought 15 years ago that politicians would start to recognize the need for a change?

In the meantime, it is probably better to stick with the writer and commentator Álvaro Vargas Llosa’s conclusion:

Even Latin-American governments that refuse to accept lessons in reality will have to move away from their paralyzed positions, because reality will prevail. The reformers are clearly the ones who carry the “momentum.” The snowball has already begun rolling, and sooner or later it will be enormous. Better to submit to it or avoid it than wait for someone to get crushed.

Translated by Laura Weiss.

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