Drug Legalization and Decriminalization: Bolivia's Stance

9 February 2012

As calls mount from prominent Latin American politicians for a profound re-evaluation of international drug policy, and even a debate on the feasibility of drug decriminalization and legalization at the Summit of the Americas this weekend, Bolivia’s complex position is often misunderstood.

Personal consumption decriminalized in Practice in spite of legally mandated rehabilitation

Currently, personal drug possession in Bolivia does not carry a jail sentence. The 1988 antidrug Law 1008 mandates residential rehabilitation and treatment for drug addicts and occasional users. However, in practice this regulation has not occurred because of a persisting focus on drug interdiction and coca reduction, paired with almost non-existent public rehabilitation facilities. The law further stipulates that specialists from a government drug dependency institution should identify the quantity of each drug to be considered "for personal consumption." Yet Bolivian legislation has never defined this quantity nor has the government created such an institute.

As a result of the shortage of public rehabilitation infrastructure currently, Bolivian police release people found with a small amount of cocaine or marijuana. Drug Control law enforcement officers complain that the lack of clarity about what should be considered a personal dose complicates their efforts legally distinguish consumer from drug dealers, and traffickers, who do receive stiff legal penalties.

Since 1988, only one person has been sentenced to mandatory rehabilitation. In 2010, Police arrested ex-dictator Juan Pereda Asbún after repeated complaints that he had exposed himself to adolescent girls and pressured them to get in his car. At the time of his arrest, police found two packs of cigarettes laced with cocaine, and claimed that Pereda was intoxicated. Apparently, Bolivian legal authorities decided that it would be less of a national embarrassment to sentence him to rehabilitation for drug possession than for sexual misconduct.

Outcome of long-awaited drug law modification unclear

Morales administration plans to modify Law 1008 have been repeatedly postponed since 2006. Although officials initially planned to make possession for personal consumption a crime, acute budget restrictions and severe prison overcrowding have forced them to re-evaluate this stance. Bolivian authorities are currently debating options such as fines or public service for possession of small quantities for personal use, and using funds confiscated from traffickers to create public rehabilitation options for addicts. It remains unclear whether rehabilitation for problematic users would be mandatory under the new legislation.

Bolivian government’s stance on legalization remains undefined as some neighbors press for profound reform

Recent calls from current and former Latin American leaders for an open, frank debate about failed drug war prohibitionist policies, including legalization has provoked a profound shift in the Latin American public discourse and raised expectations about reform possibilities and broad regional rejection of U.S. backed and funded initiatives. This paradigm shift has placed the Morales administration in a conceptual sandwich. Since 2006 the Bolivian government has sought to emphasize the distinction between the coca leaf, widely used in the Andes as a mild, legal stimulant, appetite suppressant, and cocaine, a powerful narcotic. This initiative heightened with the country’s formal denunciation of the 1961 Single Convention, which classifies the coca leaf, along with cocaine, heroin and opium as dangerous addictive drugs, and their attempt to re-adhere with the reservation that coca chewing and other uses of the leaf be permitted within Bolivia.

Within Bolivia’s borders this “coca yes; cocaine no” policy has translated into rationed coca production among distinct coca producing and aggressive cocaine interdiction efforts on the part of anti-drug police. Unfortunately, though, the nation’s concerted efforts to clearly differentiate between the leaf and the drug have failed to gain the approval of some nations influential in the United Nations, most notably the United States. In spite of US statistics showing a net reduction in the Bolivian coca crop and drug control efforts, which has “decertified Bolivia’s drug control efforts since 2008” and blocked an Bolivian amendment to gain UN recognition of coca chewing and other uses of the leaf. Furthermore, the U.N International Narcotics Control Board mirrored US arguments by distorting the focus of the Bolivian initiative and publically condemning it, threatening that “the integrity of the international drug control system would be undermined and the achievements of the past 100 years in drug control would be compromised.”

Other nations, such as Japan, France, Great Britain, Sweden and Russia have also stated they lean towards opposing the Bolivian UN initiative. Even more surprising, although coca chewing is legal in Peru, on March 20 their drug czar told international correspondents that, “We’re carrying out a legal analysis to decide whether or not to Support Bolivia’s re-entry into the Vienna Convention..Peru respects coca chewing, but we need more evidence about coca’s medicinal properties,” She also erroneously claimed that none of the 200 countries present at the Commission on Narcotics Drug Meeting in Vienna supported Bolivia’s efforts to gain recognition for coca chewing. This lack of flexibility on an unfounded, anachronistic prohibition of the coca leaf, based on discriminatory assumptions from the 1950s, could backfire on opposing nations and the INCB.

Bolivia shares critique of repressive drug policies of leaders promoting reform debate

Key countries’ opposition to distinguish the coca leaf from class one narcotics pushes Bolivia closer to Latin American nations willing to debate drug legalization and other profound reforms to existing drug policy. Although it appears no nation will advocate complete legalization of most illicit drugs, the repeated calls for reform by Guatemalan, Mexican, Colombian and other prominent politicians highlights Latin American’s nations frustration with US drug policy dictates which appear insensitive and unresponsive to the dramatic toll the initiatives take on nations where they are imposed. This is an argument that Bolivians share. Repressive policies, including military forced coca eradication, mandated by the US as a prerequisite for continued financial assistance, provoked human rights violations, retaliatory violence, poverty for subsistence farmers, erosion of national sovereignty and a lack of civilian control over the security forces. Although the scale of violence cannot compare to that of Colombia or Mexico, the negative impact of these policies from 1988 to 2004 is abundantly clear.

On March 15, President Morales met with President Santos of Colombia, who has stated he welcomes a debate on drug legalization and hopes that this will initiate in this week’s Summit of the Americas. Following a productive meeting Santos affirmed that:

We discussed the issue of seeking alternatives to the current international drug policy, explore whether there are better options, what they would be and how to implement them. This topic is now on the table. The Central Americans have asked that we address this matter in the summit. President Morales agrees that this is an extremely necessary debate affecting both countries, and the whole hemisphere.

Although rookie government minister Carlos Romero said the next day that the administration opposed a debate on drug legalization at the Cartagena Summit, veteran Drug Czar Felipe Cáceres soon corrected him, stating that, although they had opposed it in the past, Bolivia had not made up its mind about drug decriminalization. “We respect each country’s decision and legitimate position about the legalization of certain drugs...In Bolivia we haven’t yet analyzed whether we support or oppose drug decriminalization.”

The Obama administration should take heed of Latin American calls for profound drug policy reform that have exceeded all expectations. Unyielding, politically-biased stances, such as claims that Bolivia’s reservation that non-narcotic uses of the coca leaf there be internationally recognized could “violate the integrity” of the Single Convention have often boomeranged, provoking more dramatic rejection of U.S. policy goals and unanticipated developments. For example, an unwillingness to permit the Bolivian government to cease violent coca eradication, in spite of the high costs for the nation, helped bring coca grower Evo Morales to office, something impermissible for the US and inconceivable just a few years before.

It is unclear what position Bolivia will take in the legalization and drug policy reform debate or what the outcome of the general discussion will be. In any case, these determinations will increasingly respond to unique national and regional priorities, instead of U.S. policy dictates. US policymakers can continue to turn a blind eye to regional evolution or learn to become an active participant, respectful of the priorities and view of its southern neighbors.

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