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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

13th January 2012

Two events occurring on consecutive days in two countries on opposite sides of the world suggested to me the complexity of dealing with the traditional use of psychoactive substances.

On Friday 11th January, the Plurinational State of Bolivia completed the process of getting official UN recognition of the rights of its people to grow Erythroxylum coca, the coca bush, in order to chew the leaves themselves. This marked the completion of a long and complex process and, as so often happens, ended up being more about international politics than drug policy.

Erythroxylum coca, the coca bush

Erythroxylum coca, the coca bush

Evo Morales was first elected president of Bolivia in 2006 but it was his re-election in 2009 that gave him the clout required to pass a new constitution that sought to recognise the needs of the indigenous peoples. Morales, a former coca farmer, included a provision allowing individuals to produce coca leaves for personal chewing whilst retaining prohibition on commercial growth of coca and production of cocaine.

Even so, the new constitution put Bolivia in breach of its obligations under the various UN conventions on drugs. In 2011, Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 Single Convention and the other UN rules. It then applied to re-join but with an exemption for the chewing of coca leaves. Under UN procedures this application was open to challenge by other member states and would be rejected if one third of the current 184 signatory countries objected.

This is where a relatively simple matter to do with a treaty on drug policy moves into the larger political scene. With the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) using its usual overblown language to suggest the move threatened to bring down the whole of civilisation, the USA, UK, Russia, Italy, Sweden were among a handful of countries who opposed the exemption. The challenge fell far short of the required sixty plus countries, however, because many countries saw the actions of the USA in particular as another attempt by large developed nations to impose their will on weaker countries.

So, Bolivia is now, again, a signatory to the UN drug conventions but Bolivians are legally allowed to grow Erythroxylum coca and chew the leaves as they have for thousands of years. A traditional practice has been recognised as resulting in no harm to the people who engage in it.

It will be interesting to see if other countries use the same process to introduce policies reflecting their beliefs in respect of drug policy. The INCB may have been hysterical in suggesting this one act could bring down the international drug control regime but it might turn out to be the start of that process.

But the day after people in Bolivia were able to celebrate that their traditional practices were now recognised as acceptable, people in Yemen were facing a challenge to the acceptability of their traditional, and completely legal, psychoactive substance.

At some point in 2011, a young Yemeni woman, Hind Aleryani, took the view that something had to be done about the damage she believed was being done to her country by the excessive use of Catha edulis, khat. She called for 12th January 2012 to be a qat free day in Yemen. In the past year, she has received what seems to be growing support and the first anniversary of that initial qat free day appears to have been marked more widely.

Catha edulis, khat

Catha edulis, khat

There are a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ about this because I cannot determine how widespread her support is. Certainly, she has nearly 20,000 followers on Twitter but there does not seem to have been a great deal of media attention, outside of Yemen, to the issue. There was this piece, written by Hind Aleryani, herself, in ‘Your Middle East’ but, of course, that is not an objective view of the campaign.

Yemen had a particularly difficult experience with what the media calls the ‘Arab Spring’ and, it seems to me, this could have led some people to turn to increased qat use for solace. A breakdown in order and discipline may also have increased the number of people who saw no reason not to chew qat during their working hours and it is reported that qat chewing has increasingly become an all day, anywhere practice rather than the khatting sessions indoors for a couple of hours in the afternoon. It is the chewing of qat by government employees that has been a particular focus of the campaign and, in fact, the stated aim of the qat free day on 12th January is just to stop chewing at work by civil servants.

Hind Aleryani is, clearly, a very astute woman because she has resisted calls for a qat free day each month presumably recognising that the campaign does not have sufficient support, at this stage, to sustain such an effort.

She is also focussing on the harm done to the economy by qat rather than any alleged harm to chewers. As long ago as 2007, the consumption of water for growing the Catha edulis bushes was raising concerns about Yemen’s future and those concerns are central to the anti-qat campaigners.

The question, of course, is whether qat is the right target for dealing with Yemen’s ills. Yemen has about half the surface area of Bolivia with a population of around 24 million against Bolivia’s 10 million. Its per capita GDP is around half of Bolivia’s, according to the CIA World Factbook and its unemployment rate is five times that of Bolivia.

Its population is growing faster than all bar 26 other countries in the world so its shortage of resources for its people is only going to get worse.

I must, of course, admit to being an outsider but it does seem to me that excessive qat chewing is a symptom of Yemen’s problems not a cause.

While Bolivia seems to be able to deal with the extent of non-food crop production to meet traditional cultural practices it does seem to be more of a problem for a more over-crowded, less well-governed, less well-resourced country like Yemen. Is this another indication of the ineffectiveness of a ‘one size fits all’ drug policy controlled by the United Nations?

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