Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the Spanish government’s safest pair of hands and an eloquent orator, was left speechless last week by a query about lifting the world ban on chewing coca leaves. “I’d like to know what, if any, is Spain’s position on this,” asked a reporter with a South American accent.
“Err….” was Rubalcaba’s untypical reaction, followed by a seven-second pause before he briskly replied, “I must admit not having a stance on this topic.”
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The question clearly surprised Rubalcaba, government First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, although the coca-chewing is again in the news.
The Bolivian president Evo Morales, once a coca-grower himself, passionately defends the leaves which, chewed or drunk as an infusion, allegedly help to combat altitude sickness as well as hunger in the Andes.
In March 2009 Morales addressed delegates at a UN drugs summit in Vienna with a coca leaf in his hand which he then chewed to demonstrate that coca leaves were not cocaine.
“We support the coca leaf, not cocaine,” Morales said at the time. Coca leaves were consumed in the year 3000 BC and should no longer be criticised and criminalised, he informed delegates. Banning coca was equal to banning an entire culture, he added.
Nearly two years later, Morales wants an amendment to the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that currently obliges signatories to prohibit coca-chewing.
There is a January 31 deadline for nations to raise objections and if none is registered, Morales’ proposal will come into force.
The United States intends to foil the Bolivian president’s initiative and, as well as lobbying intensely, has filed a formal objection. “We hope that a number of other countries will file as well,” said a senior government official last week.
Evidence from a UN survey suggested that a substantial percentage of Bolivia’s increased coca production in recent years had gone into the network and marketplace for cocaine, he maintained.
The US arguments were outmoded and not one scientific study showed coca as a dangerous substance, countered university professor Paul Gootenberg, author of “Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug.”
The claim that coca was basically cocaine and could be used to distil cocaine was unrealistic, according to Gootenberg, who said that 200 kilos of coca leaves were needed to produce one kilo of cocaine.
Back in Spain the ministry of Health announced a fall in cocaine use throughout 2010. Nevertheless statistics for 2007, the last available year, revealed more cocaine use in Spain’s 15-64 age group than in the US and four times the European average.
And while Rubalcaba must be rueing his temporary inarticulacy and lack of a stance on chewing coca, Morales would undoubtedly use these figures to support his theory.