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The White House Blacklisted Bolivia for Growing Coca While US States Sell Legal Weed

The US has once again "decertified" Bolivia, despite recent data that shows the country has achieved an unparalleled decrease in coca cultivation.

by Samuel Oakford
Sep 16 2015, 8:50am

Imagen por Martin Alipaz/EPA

The US has again "decertified" Bolivia over what it calls a failure to comply with international narcotics agreements, despite recent data showing the country has achieved an unparalleled decrease in coca cultivation compared to other Andean nations in South America.

The decision, while widely expected, was roundly criticized by drug policy experts, who called the move hypocritical given that the US may be in contravention of UN drug conventions due to legalized marijuana markets in several states.

Bolivia was decertified for the eighth consecutive year, and was joined in receiving the rebuke this year by Myanmar and Venezuela. Decertification allows the US to withdraw aid packages, and impose certain additional measures on a government that is deemed to not be cooperating with American directives. 

Bolivia has long been a thorn in the side of American drug enforcement officials. In 2008, President Evo Morales booted the US Drug Enforcement Administration from the country, accusing them of meddling in the affairs of the government. The same year, American ambassador Philip Goldberg was also expelled.

In the time since, Morales, a former coca grower, has overseen a vast reduction in areas devoted to coca cultivation in the country. Cocaine production and drug trafficking remain widespread, but many officials, including those at the UN's regional drug office, have hailed Morales' détente with coca farmers, who in neighboring countries are often targeted by draconian and sometimes violent eradication measures.

Related: How Bolivia Got Smart and Convinced Poor Farmers to Grow Less Coca

In its most recent assessment, the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime found that terrain devoted to coca cultivation in Bolivia fell by 11 percent in 2014, the fourth consecutive year of decreases. The study, compiled jointly with Bolivia's government, determined that the area under cultivation decreased from 23,000 hectares in 2013 to 20,400 in 2014 — the lowest total since the UN started tracking coca production there in 2003.

Morales has largely been able to bring powerful coca grower unions on board with his plan through a combination of investment and the promise of a guaranteed income for farmers. According to the UN, coca prices in Bolivia are several times higher than those in neighboring Colombia and Peru, countries that have struggled to clamp down on coca cultivation using more traditional, US-supported and financed interdiction efforts.

In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but re-acceded two years later — despite protests from the US and several European countries — with the stipulation that it be allowed to maintain a legal market for coca, the raw plant ingredient used to manufacture cocaine.

'If we are honest, US policies are a failure in terms of the fight against drug trafficking around the world.'

Bolivians have chewed and otherwise consumed coca for centuries, and Morales long insisted that the UN's convention system violated the rights of the country's majority indigenous population. UN member states agreed with him.

In its decision to decertify Bolivia for the 2016 fiscal year, the US cited Bolivia's 2011 withdrawal, and complained that the country "continues to promote the worldwide cultivation and commercialization of coca leaf products, contrary to the conventions' foundational premises and Bolivia's own reservation [to the 1961 convention]." The US also claimed that "given the substantial amount of coca already grown in Bolivia, the difficulty the country has had policing illegally grown coca, and the diversion from licit markets to illicit ones, this reservation adds to the complications of distinguishing between illegally and legally grown coca."

Several high profile cases in recent years have implicated senior Bolivian officials in drug trafficking. But the country's production of the base crop remains well below those of its neighbors. Between 2013 and 2014, coca cultivation in Colombia rose from 85,000 hectares to 112,000 last year, according to White House estimates. In Peru, where a controversial government program has destroyed of tens of thousands of hectares of coca farms each year, the country still has more than two and half times as much area under cultivation as Bolivia.

Related: The Discovery of Mexico's First Coca Plantation Could Upend the Cocaine Business

In a statement accompanying the presidential determination to blacklist Bolivia, the White House hailed Colombia and Peru, saying that the two countries "demonstrate highly effective leadership in countering illegal drug trafficking and transnational crime." Colombia was specifically cited for training nearly 26,500 police officers from other countries between 2009 and 2015.

"I think it's a political action carried out by the State Department of the United States," said Morales, following the decision. "If we are honest, US policies are a failure in terms of the fight against drug trafficking around the world."

John Walsh, coordinator of the Washington Office on Latin America's drug policy program, pointed out that the US has been quiet about other countries that are possibly running afoul of the UN conventions. Uruguay, for instance, approved a legal market for marijuana, but is nowhere to be seen in the 2016 list, either under blacklisted countries or those that are recognized as "major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing countries."

Watch the VICE News documentary The New King of Coke:

That discrepancy, said Walsh, has much to do with the legalized markets for marijuana that now exist Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC.

"What is new in terms of US policy, is that pushed by state level legalization and the Obama administration's decision to accommodate that, the US is itself arguably contravening the UN conventions in the case of cannabis policy," said Walsh. "The US doesn't say anything about Uruguay."

At least in terms of its adherence the convention system, Bolivia is in fact more in line with international narcotics law because it had its market explicitly approved by UN member states, said Walsh.

Related: Pope Francis Wants to Chew On Some Coca Leaves in Bolivia

"What Bolivia has done through social control is reducing sustainably the overall hectares under cultivation without resort to massive eradication programs but rather by providing licit income through an allowance for licit coca, and mindful that their own constitution treats coca and its traditional uses as part of the country's cultural heritage and patrimony," said Walsh.

Others involved in Latin American drug policy were more explicit.

"It's hypocritical and arrogant that the US, with legal recreational marijuana in several states in violation of the UN Single Convention, justifies Bolivia's decertification by citing the country's noncompliance with the same international accord," Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told VICE News.

"Each decertification of Bolivia's drug control performance, despite progress on peaceful coca control and continued earnest interdiction efforts, solidly documented by UNODC, further erodes US credibility with the international community," Ledebur added.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford