Those cheeky peers have been at it again. Following their revelationary recommendations back in January, which suggested we dropped the moral stance on drug use and took a more pragmatic approach, this week the All Party Parliamentary Group For Drug Policy Reform have come up with an idea so good and so politically-unaligned that it has blown my socks off.
Using the same level-headed, true harm-reduction manner as Towards a Safer Drugs Policy, Baroness Meacher and Co. have this week published Coca Leaf: A Political Dilemma?. This new document, commissioned and published by the peers but written by a specialist in The Americas’ human rights, tracks the damage done in Latin America by the War On Drugs, and then looks at the ancient benefits found in the coca leaf in its unprocessed form.
The report provides a historical context to the current UN Drug Conventions, which, since 1961, have prohibited not only the production of cocaine but also the coca leaf. This has resulted in mass fumigation programmes, leaving huge areas of South America desolate. The poverty has left populations open to exploitation by drugs barons, and massive territories have fallen under criminal control. This has, in turn, undermined democratic systems, and destroyed large areas of jungle and wildlife.
Attempts to counter this movement have met strong opposition. Publication of evidence from the World Health Organisation, which stated that coca leaf had “no negative health effects”, was blocked, and when Bolivia made its case to exclude coca production from the UN Convention for traditional use, the USA and fourteen other countries objected. Despite this, Bolivia won, and legal coca leaf production is now underway. The report released this week appears to be in response to this change, and to President Santos’ recent call for a more pragmatic approach to the impact that drugs are having in the region. It looks towards the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, where, it seem, it is hoped that the international sanctions on coca leaf production will be lifted.
In terms of the benefits offered by the coca leaf, it has long been used to enable working at high altitudes. However, it is now thought that this may not be, as originally thought, related to oxygen saturation or blood pressure – instead, it appears to moderate blood sugar levels. This indicates its possible uses in diabetes treatment. Because of the UN restrictions, it has been impossible for any research to be carried out in the modern era, but the high iron and calcium content, along with its richness of vitamins and minerals and a variety of other health-giving properties, mean that there may potential in the future to use it in the treatment of asthma, anaemia, gastrointestinal illnesses, low immunity and colds, and as an analgesic and antibacterial.
Its potential use in the food and nutrition industries, too, is possible. Containing seven times more iron and seventy-four times more calcium that the average plants we eat, it is thought to be useful for those with broken bones or osteoporosis, and its high protein content also has dietary implications. (It contains more calcium than milk or eggs, and more protein than meat.) It could also be used as an appetite suppressant for treating obesity, or taken like caffeine to increase energy levels and enhance performance. Given that it can be processed into flour, its use in the modern diet has great potential.
And finally, it is also thought to be usable in the treatment of cocaine addiction. Research is needed to test claims that the coca leaf could be used as methadone is in the treatment of opiate dependence, or whether it can also be used like buprenorphine by limiting the neural rewards available from taking the drug.
For any of these hypotheses to be rigorously tested, legal access to the coca leaf needs to be improved. Unsurprisingly, the report calls for restrictions on coca leaf production to be lifted, work to be done with the local governments to ensure that production be channelled for legal purposes instead of being made available to the drugs trade, and for farming communities to be supported in freeing themselves from black-market slavery.
These are big asks, and not requests to be implemented half-heatedly or quickly. However, with international political unity, and humanitarian aid from the countries that caused the damage in the first place (for example, maybe the four thousand US troops currently based in South America fighting the War On Drugs could be redeployed to protect the farmers?), maybe there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for millions of South Americans.
Well done, peers. You continue to surprise and educate me.