VIENNA -- Bolivian President Evo Morales urged a 53-nation U.N. narcotics control meeting Monday to accept his push for legalization of coca-leaf chewing and growing in his country for traditional uses.
At the same time, he called on developed nations to give him the tools to crack down on illegal cultivation.
Bolivia renounced the U.N.'s anti-drug convention last year because it classifies coca leaf as an illegal drug. Bolivia's military government ratified the convention in 1961, committing the country to eradicate coca within 25 years, but Morales, in comments to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime meeting, described that move as a "historical error" that needed correction.
Bolivia's government contends that coca leaf in its natural form is not a narcotic and forms an age-old part of Andean culture. It wants to rejoin the convention but only if other UNODC member nations accept an amendment to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to remove language that obliges signatories to prohibit the chewing of coca leaves. If none are registered, it would automatically take effect.
Brandishing a coca leaf, as he often does when pushing his point, Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, said the "absurd prohibition of coca chewing ... is simply not applicable in the territory of Bolivia."
He called Bolivia's 1961 ratification a "misguided act."
Morales said that in areas of traditional coca cultivation, small plots are given families "to correspond to the legal production of coca leaf for chewing."
"In Bolivia, there is not free cultivation of coca but there cannot be no cultivation either," he said. "It cannot be reduced to zero."
Morales said vast amounts of illegal coca cultivation occur in remote nature reservations with little access by road and urged developing nations to provide his nation with the hardware to be crack down on production outside traditional use and meant for cocaine manufacture.
"Give us the necessary technology, the helicopters ... with or without pilots," he said. "We want to make our combating of drug trafficking more effective by getting that kind of assistance."
UNODC chief Yuri Fedotov said his organization's member states had until early next year to reach to approve or reject the Bolivian push, but in an allusion to U.S. and other Western opposition told reporters "some countries already conveyed to us their strong position."
Washington argues that the amendment would open the more than 50-year old convention to attack by a U.N member nation that would seek to exclude for parochial reasons one of the 119 substances the convention classifies as narcotics subject to strict controls.
Fedotov indicated he was opposed to Bolivia's attempt to exempt traditional uses of coca from the convention, saying "such kinds of initiatives in the long run may undermine" international consensus on drug control and "have a domino effect."
In separate opening comments to the four-day meeting, Fedotov said drug abuse kills 250,000 people worldwide annually.
He cited a 2010 UNODC report that said 67,000 tons of drugs were seized that year globally – "an indication of the size of the challenge" in the fight to reduce illicit drug trafficking.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed from La Paz, Bolivia.