President Evo Morales defended Bolivians' right to chew coca leaves, the main ingredient in cocaine, at a United Nations anti-drugs meeting in Vienna on Monday, reported Al Jazeera. The president of the world's No. 3 producer of cocaine said chewing the leaves is an ancient tradition for his people and that the South American country is working to fight drug trafficking.
Holding up a coca leaf during the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Morales, a former farmer of the leaf himself, said coca leaf producers are not "drug dealers" and that the leaf was not the same as the stimulant it produced, according to Reuters.
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"We are not drug addicts when we consume the coca leaf. The coca leaf is not cocaine, we have to get rid of this misconception," Morales said in a speech that ended with applause from the hall, Reuters reported.
When processed, coca leaf can be turned into cocaine, according to Agence France Presse. But it is also an important part of indigenous Andean culture, and is chewed to fight altitude sickness, taken as a tea and used in religious ceremonies.
Morales and his government argued that coca leaf is not a narcotic in its natural form, reported the Associated Press. Bolivia wanted to rejoin the convention and the conversation that's attempting to put a stop to drug trafficking, but only if other UN Office on Drugs and Crime member nations accept an amendment to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which includes language that forces the prohibition of coca leaf chewing. The country withdrew last year in protest of the classification of coca as an illegal drug, according to BBC News.
But Al Jazeera reported that it is unclear whether or not Bolivia will secure sufficient support among other countries to be able to make the change for coca.
"We know that some countries already conveyed to us their strong opposition," said Yury Fedotov, head of the UNODC, according to Al Jazeera.
Fedotov also expressed concern that Bolivia's request could, in the long run, undermine international drug control laws and could have a "domino effect," according to Reuters.
The video below shows why Bolivians are standing up for coca leaves: