By Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta A. Youngers
In a long-anticipated trip, Pope Francis arrives in Bolivia today, almost 30 years after the last papal visit. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales and the Argentine pontiff developed a good rapport during the president’s meeting at the Vatican in October 2014. The Pope’s commitment to the poor resonates well in a country that has prioritized the empowerment of previously excluded peoples under the leadership of Morales, the first indigenous president in the country.
Indeed, the Pope plans to embrace one of Bolivia’s strongest indigenous traditions by chewing coca leaves, a mild stimulant that has similar effects to coffee and that helps to mitigate the impact of the high altitude, in La Paz, his first stop. In doing so, the pontiff could give a boost to the Bolivian government’s efforts to gain international legal status for its sacred leaf, which is erroneously banned as a narcotic drug in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
In addition to its legal uses in Bolivia, coca is also a raw material used to manufacture cocaine. Upon taking office, the Morales administration furthered a 2004 policy by replacing violent forced coca eradication programs (which pushed people deeper into poverty) with efforts promoting gradual coca reduction through community control and economic development. In so doing, the government developed an approach that has proven to be more effective—coca cultivation has declined four years in a row by a cumulative 26 percent—while at the same time honoring the country’s own cultural traditions and recognizing that poor people who rely on coca for many other legitimate products should not be blamed for a global problem well beyond their control.
Pope Francis will also visit the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, the biggest in the country. Twenty percent of Palmasola inmates are behind bars for drug offenses, which include small-scale cocaine paste producers, dealers and “mules” that transport drugs. Bolivia’s prison population increased by 158 percent from 2001 to 2013—in part because of the country’s harsh drug law that puts people in jail for up to 25 years.
To its credit, the Morales administration is working to address the prison crisis through criminal justice and penitentiary reforms. It has also implemented three consecutive pardons, releasing over 2,000 Bolivians from prison. Unfortunately, disproportionately high sentences have limited their impact for drug offenders. The Bolivian congress approved a broader pardon initiative yesterday in anticipation offor the Pope’s visit to the Palmasola prison on Thursday.
These pardons are an important step forward, but without drug law reform, Bolivia’s prisons simply fill back up. The last Papal visit to Bolivia occurred a month before adoption of the draconian drug Law 1008, which established the excessively harsh sentencing policies—still in effect today—that do not distinguish between the level or gravity of the crime committed. Pope Francis’s visit also coincides with the government’s decision to follow through on its decade-long promise to rewrite Law 1008. A draft law will be presented soon to the Bolivian Congress and could be ratified in the coming months. The Morales government’s focus on alleviating poverty, as they have with coca production, to address low-income, non-violent low-level drug offenders would strengthen its humanitarian approach and focus law enforcement efforts on those running the drug trade.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis announced an “Extraordinary Jubilee,” that will be a “Holy Year of Mercy,” beginning in December 2015. The Catholic Church declares jubilee years every 25 to 50 years; the most recent jubilee, in the year 2000, focused on debt forgiveness. The Vatican explained that this mercy jubilee reflects Pope Francis’s “vision and witness of reaching out to those on the existential ‘peripheries’ of society, in order to give a direct testimony to the Church’s affinity and care for the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, and all those who need a sign of tenderness.”
The Bolivian government’s announced reforms should follow the spirit the Pope’s jubilee year of mercy, by ensuring that those in the lowest rungs of the drug trade receive penalties that are commensurate with the gravity of the crimes committed and offering alternatives to incarceration. The government should also continue its social integration and employment programs that keep poor people from resorting to producing, selling, or transporting small amounts of drugs in the first place. It is time to follow the Pope’s lead and declare a “drug law reform jubilee.”
Kathryn Ledebur is Executive Director of the Andean Information Network based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Coletta A. Youngers is a WOLA Senior Fellow, Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and member of the research team, Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho (CEDD).
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