WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Feb 2013 | Commentary | News

Bolivia Officially Returns as a Party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs

By Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow

Bolivia’s process of withdrawing from the United Nations 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and re-adhering with a new reservation allowing for the traditional uses of the coca leaf was completed on February 10, 2013. The Plurinational State of Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 Convention in June 2011. In order to block Bolivia’s re-adherence to the Single Convention, one-third or more of the 184 UN treaty members would have had to formally object by January 10, 2013. Only 15 countries formally objected by that deadline, allowing Bolivia to begin the procedure to return to the convention. It is now again a party to the Single Convention, having won a significant victory in its efforts to right the historic wrong in the classification of the coca leaf as a dangerous narcotic. However, the right to traditional uses of the coca leaf only pertains to Bolivia; the exportation and use of coca leaf internationally remains prohibited.

In taking this action, Bolivia was seeking to reconcile its new constitution with its international commitments. Article 384 of the 2009 Constitution states: “The State shall protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion; in its natural state it is not a narcotic. Its revaluing, production, commercialization, and industrialization shall be regulated by law.” The Constitution allowed for a period of four years for the government to “denounce and, in that case, renegotiate the international treaties that may be contrary to the constitution.”

The government of Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 Convention after its effort to amend the Single Convention by deleting its provision requiring that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished” within 25 years (Article 49) failed. Bolivia then followed established procedures to leave and return as a party to the convention with the new reservation on the coca leaf.

Defenders of prohibition maintain that the international drug conventions should be left just as they are for fear that Bolivia’s efforts with regards to the coca leaf could open up a Pandora’s box, with other countries proposing changes that call into question the fundamentals of the current treaties. Bolivia’s successful re-adherence to the Single Convention may indeed set an important precedent for other countries to follow; whether that precedent is to be feared or welcomed depends on whether one considers the current treaties already “fit for purpose,” or whether—as WOLA believes—reforms are overdue. Another step forward, for example, would be for the international community to entirely remove the coca leaf from List 1 of the 1961 Convention.

For more information on coca and drug control policies in Bolivia see the WOLA-AIN report, Bolivian Drug Control Efforts: Genuine Progress, Daunting Challenges.