Home » Side event: Licit uses of the coca leaf

Side event: Licit uses of the coca leaf

Organised by the Open Society Institute with the support of Colombia, the Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad and Elementa DDHH

Diego Garcia, Open Society Foundations. I am lucky to be here today with a number of experts on the coca leaf issue. Here we want to imagine a future with coca.

⁠Andrés López Velazco, independent consultant on regulation, colombian INCB candidate. Let me start with a short review of the industrial uses of coca. First in terms of definitions on coca. We have the definition of coca from the convention from 1961: the leaf from which all ecgonine, cocaine and any other ecgonine alkaloids have been removed. Then you have the definition of cocaine, ecgonine and preparations. Then you see exceptions: there is one on the coca leaf with article 27 which permits industrial uses when alkaloids are removed from the leaves. But there is also a broader exception on industrial uses if the preparation is not liable to abuse or have ill-effects. It’s also important to highlight that in practice alkaloids should not be recoverable from the preparation. There is still an obligation to send reports to the INCB. So what are the possibilities for alternative uses of coca? The uses of coca in international law are limited to scientific, medical (incl traditional uses) and industrial uses. There are no strict definitions on the traditional uses of coca. One of the purposes of Colombian drug policy is to define that. In terms of industrial uses, it can include food, cosmetics, materials, pigments, fertilizers and other products. The traditional use of the coca leaf is also recognised in article 14.2 of the 1988 convention. For other narcotic drugs, national regulations on exempted preparations are nothing new. There are plenty of examples from the USA and the UK, especially on cannabis and hemp preparations, where national authorities have developed guidance on preparations of cannabis, in particular THC contents.

Diego. Thank you for opening the discussion on the uses of the coca plant. Now we will hear from Lissette Caicedo, the Municipality of Bolivar Cauca in Colombia.

⁠⁠Lissete Caicedo, Escuela Agroambiental Arraigo, Municipality of Bolivar, Cauca in Colombia. I work with alternative uses of the coca leaf. Our work on the use of the coca leaf is very important for us. Coca is not necessarily cocaine. We believe in ancestrality, traditional power. Thanks to collaborative work, we have established trust to guarantee the quality of the coca we cultivate. We have gastronomic recipes, we do research and exchange knowledge and we can use our own organic fertilisers. We believe in ancestrality. We use our own seeds, we don’t use chemicals. Our home gardens were built during the COVID-19 pandemic and they are used still today. We should highlight that our plant has been a basis of investigation on the medicinal value and nutritional value of the plant we produce. We have counted in various allies to make this happen.

Diego. We will hear now bottom-up solutions in Vienna and hope that this will be changing minds. We will now hear how coca is used for textiles.

María Alejandra Torres, Pajarita Caucana. I work on a project using coca for art. After 2 years of exploration I want to underscore the relevance of the coca leaf, it’s about creating new narratives. It brings me here, where were presenting an exhibition on the use of the coca plant. It shows the diverse applications of the coca leaf in Colombia, as a natural dye and pigment in Colombia. The pigment is obtained through a process of precipitation of coca powder crystallised. Bringing coca from Colombia to Vienna is significant. Terms such as substitution, AD and law enforcement surrounded our exhibition. Having coca present here carries profound significance. Based on my research and understanding of its use, it’s much more than that. I created many samples ranging from deep greens, yellows and beige. These colours originate from the earth, what grows in specific territories for centuries.

Felipe Tascón Recio, Crops substitution Director Comombian government. It’s a pleasure to work in favour of coca in a country that has introduced stigmatisation. The issue is complex. The traditional market has been captured by the mafia. The market is only one forum of interrelation. But since colonisation, today everything is measured by markets. Markets should be constructed for other human relations. Coca has 14 active ingredients, 13 are beneficial but are being subjugated by cocaine and so are an attractive business which is related to violence and corruption. Coca is a source for medicine, nutrients, vitamins, food, employment for its culture and processing. So active ingredients can be used for other purposes than cocaine but because of that the plant has been stigmatised and demonised. I have a researcher report that as early as 1974 analysed a kg of coca leaf from Bolivia. He concluded that coca was harmless. Coca is not a drug but a food, a mild stimulant, essential for the adaptation of the people in the Andes. So then why did the war on drugs continue to be concentrated against our coca farmers? The good intention of 7 decades of this has ignored the uses of coca across our region. When the Bolivian government claimed the right to cultivate coca, they claimed the rights of their community and what is necessary for all human relations. We must look at the problem from the farmers’ point of view. Half a million people in Colombia and half a million people in Bolivia survive thanks to this market, in addition to the uses as food, nutrients and medicine. To abolish the prohibition of the coca leaf, we have now a basis for the construction of a market for the coca leaf, with the consumers in various parts of the country, and the creation of an agro-industry. It is the task we have, to create demand for this product. It would be followed by global solidarity where all can benefit from coca, improving the quality of life of all human beings. But there is an enemy: capital profits associated with cocaine. It doesn’t matter if the human priority chooses the beneficial alternative product. Profits will always prevail in a capitalistic society. We have already seen this for corn. We need to transcend the moral debate on the evils of cocaine. In countries where education and information on the harms caused, where supply is regulated, it works better than a moral condemnation. Coca is the supertonic of the vegetable kingdom, a knowledge of the 18th century which transcends this forum. In 2025, Colombia will be here to promote this act of justice to humanity and nature.

Diego. Thank you Felipe. It has taken more than 67 rounds of the CND to get the coca plant to be reviewed internationally. I thank IDPC for opening up this space, and for guiding us in being more effective in opening these spaces. Felipe identifies the agile and diverse market derived from prohibition too.

Question. There is a huge gap here with countries that have demonised the coca leaf with campaigns like “coca la mata que mata”. It is welcoming to see a government that believes that there is a path to end prohibition on a plant used for ancestral purposes. I am moved to hear your words and see this happening in 2025.

Question. Thanks for this interesting panel and the actions across the week in giving visibility to this sacred plant. I appreciate Dr Lopez’ intervention on the treaty system. I appreciate that Colombia is trying to navigate the system. Bolivia’s president mentioned biopiracy to protect local farmers involved in the international market once it opens, to protect them and protect the traditional knowledge derived from the coca leaf, which can be exploited by private and public institutions. Are you thinking on how you are considering biopiracy in collaboration with Bolivia. Although it’s necessary that coca is taken out of Schedule 1, coca is still mentioned in the conventions, so is there a strategy in this regard.

Andres. There is a strategy, yes, on removing coca entirely from the conventions.

Felipe. One thing I said in my talk is that while prohibition persists for coca, the business will persist. The only way is to regulate.

Question. What happens if you remove alkaloids from the coca leaf?

Andres. There are provisions in place in Colombia already on the disposal of narcotic drugs in this case and for industrial purposes. This is led by regional authorities. In this case there are fermentation processes and we need to show that the product is not harmful in the end.

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