Bolivia's Coca Licensing is Unexpected Success

By McCarton Ackerman 12/27/12

President Morales' unorthodox counternarcotics approach has helped cut back on coca growth.

A worker in a Bolivian coca field. Photo via

Bolivian President Eva Morales has adopted an unorthodox approach towards controlling the growth of coca, by licensing growers in the country and regulating sales and growth of the plant (which remains legal for medical and religious uses). Bolivia kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009, causing the US to criticize the government's counternarcotics efforts. But although the country remains the world's third-largest cocaine producer, regulation of coca growth has reaped unexpected results: the total acres planted with coca dropped 12-13% last year, according to separate reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In addition, the Bolivian government has increased seizures of cocaine and cocaine base through its efforts to stamp out unauthorized coca plantings. “It’s fascinating to look at a country that kicked out the United States ambassador and the DEA, and the expectation on the part of the United States is that drug war efforts would fall apart,” says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivian research group. "(But the method is) showing results."

The government has encouraged limited coca planting in order to maximize profits. Soldiers will typically remove any excess plantings if they are found, and if a grower violates the rule a second time, they lose the right to grow coca and their entire crop is cut down. “The results speak for themselves,” says Carlos Romero, the minister of government. “We have demonstrated that you can objectively do eradication work without violating human rights, without polemicizing the topic and with clear results.” However, some remain skeptical about Bolivia's progress. The White House drug offices estimate that the amount of cocaine which could potentially be grown from coca jumped by more than 25%. “Our perspective is they’ve made real advances, and they’re a long way from where we’d like to see them,” says Larry Memmott, chargé d’affaires of the American Embassy in La Paz. “In terms of law enforcement, a lot remains to be done.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.