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    Defending Coca Leaf Traditions in Court


    New report by ICEERS analyzes key legal cases


    ICEERS | 20 July 2022

    A revered leaf with longstanding cultural importance in South America has been reduced to the category of a “dangerous drug” with strict legal ramifications in most countries.

    In recent years, the ICEERS Ayahuasca Defense Fund has received a number of requests to provide legal support in trials involving coca leaf. As a result, ICEERS and the Transnational Institute have developed defense strategies focusing on three elements: human rights, reviewing toxicological testing done within cases, and challenging the international prohibition of coca leaf under the guise of its “toxicity.” These efforts promote the cultural context of traditional plants, support these rights in court, and reframe how coca and other plants are viewed in the eyes of the law.

    A new report — Coca Leaf in Court: Cultural Rights and the Toxicological Labyrinth — published by Constanza Sánchez, Dr. José Carlos Bouso, Pien Metaal, and Roberto Castro highlights the concerns with how coca cases are addressed in Spain, and the precedence this sets in other parts of the world.1

    The Coca Leaf in Court: Patterns Emerge

    At the center of the international perspective on coca lies a fundamental question (explored in previous articles): How can we address the traditional use of psychoactive plants outside of their traditional contexts? The government’s response tends to follow the classic path of criminalization. However, prohibition comes with many gaps, such as the precedence of human rights over drug control regulations.

    Coca prohibition brings into question the scope of international law, as the plant is legal in some countries yet prohibited in many other parts of the world. Coca has played an important role in Andean culture where it has supported social relations and been an important source of nutrients since time immemorial. Therefore, communities with a historical relationship to coca have not been able to exercise their basic rights to engage in their cultural practices when living outside the plant’s place of origin.1

    ICEERS’ involvement in coca leaf cases began in 2015 when a Colombian national living in Spain received a package containing mambe (a coca leaf-based preparation from Colombia). The report from airport customs stated that cocaine and other substances were detected via analysis. It did not provide information on the method of examination that was used to reach this conclusion nor the percentage of cocaine present in the sample. The defendant was arrested for a “crime of smuggling and risk to public health.”1

    The prosecutors drew their conclusions based on the market price of cocaine hydrochloride, which is the isolated white powder that is inhaled nasally. Mambe, on the other hand, is a preparation of roasted or ground coca leaf mixed with ashes of native Colombian plants or powdered seashells. The mixture is placed inside the inner cheek. Under no circumstance is mambe ever snorted.

    The defendant’s lawyer made the appeal that the courts were basing their decision on the weight of mambe as if it was cocaine, and the error of equating it to being over the 7.5 gram limit for “personal use.” The defense pointed out the errors with the toxicology reports and that coca leaf is respected and tolerated in Colombia. After a lengthy series of court proceedings, the charges were dropped. Most cases with coca leaf end in conviction (after the prosecution appeals to the Supreme Court), although they receive a sentence of under two years with no time in prison. However, not all of them have the same outcome.

    There have been four court cases regarding coca leaf in Spain since January 2020. These scenarios all followed a similar pattern involving Andean migrants who had been living in Spain for some time. The individuals were detained after their arrival at a Spanish airport where officials seized small quantities of coca leaves (between two and four kilograms). Criminal charges begin, which involves the Public Prosecutor’s Office requesting four to five years of jail time with heavy fines.1 The situation of coca leaves in court reflects major issues with the current laws on plant medicine and how drugs are perceived in society.

    The Question of Measures Amidst a Toxicological Labyrinth

    Currently three Supreme Court rulings have given the defendants a six-month sentence for coca leaf. This is considered a “minor offense.” In all these cases, the Supreme Court did not accept that the coca leaf was for personal use. They instead decided there was a risk the plant material would be distributed to third parties. This is especially troublesome because these cases were brought to court despite the personal use of any drug not being a criminal offense in Spain.2

    It must also be noted that the amount of cocaine, or any other component, is not the same in all coca plants. As with any botanical, the concentration of its constituents varies according to a multitude of factors. The cocaine concentration in coca plants can vary based on growing conditions, the time of the season, as well harvesting and storing techniques.1 However, the confiscated coca leaf samples reported by law enforcement and in court are reported to have relatively homogenous concentrations in their toxicological test results. This is inconsistent with the scientific literature supporting the wide variation in cocaine concentration for coca leaf.1 (This is discussed in depth in the ICEERS report).

    The cocaine equivalency measures used by the courts are not technically or pharmacologically applicable to mambe. Any attempt to establish such equivalency is erroneous. The methods and techniques in order to quantify cocaine in coca leaf are flawed at best and lead to unjust court proceedings of this traditional medicine. This is concerning as these assays often determine whether a person is prosecuted, the duration of their sentence, and/or the amount of the fine.

    Reframing Unjust Perspectives on Coca Leaf

    Coca leaf simply cannot be equated with cocaine. The control of coca stems from a set of historical and political factors that are not compatible with the modern values of the international community. The ICEERS report highlights the overzealous manner in which law enforcement and the courts go after people transporting relatively small amounts of coca leaves. There is not a single piece of scientific evidence demonstrating coca leaf is harmful to public health. In fact, it has many therapeutic benefits.1

    There is a great need to reframe how coca is viewed in global society. The resources involved in drug trials, including police time, substance analysis, and court proceedings do not compensate for the harm they intend to prevent. Coca leaves are not controlled for their danger, but rather for socio-political reasons stemming from a 1950 report that was used to justify coca prohibition, which is riddled with racist and colonial references.3 This archaic perspective is inconsistent with today’s standards for scientific evidence and human rights.

    The mission of law enforcement and the court system should act in service to the public good rather than bring unjust charges to those who have historically used coca as part of their cultural practices. These actions are supported by outdated laws that obstruct social justice and violate human rights. The current methods to handle coca cases bring up the ample flaws in toxicology reports used by law enforcement and the court system.
    The political response to the traditional use of coca outside of the Andean region should be centered on a human rights-based mindset as opposed to criminalization. The new ICEERS coca report shares the experience defending coca leaf cases in Spain and explains the failing aspects hindering fair judicial processes.

    In a world of migration and cultural exchange, it would be more constructive if society considered the benefits of traditional plants.

    Read the full report below.

    Link to the report

    Further Reading

    Migrants and Traditional Use: The Coca Leaf Travels from the Andean Amazon to the European Courts
    The Role of Traditional Medicines in Global Mental Health
    Ayahuasca Defense Fund: ICEERS’ program dedicated to addressing the challenges presented by the growing criminalization of practices with ayahuasca and other teacher plants.


    1. Bouso, J. C., Sánchez, C., Castro, R., & Metaal, P. (2022). Coca Leaf in Court: Cultural Rights and the Toxicological Labyrinth. International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS).
    2. Sánchez, C., & Collins, M. (2018). Better to ask forgiveness than permission: Spain’s sub-national approach to drug policy. Global Drug Policy Observatory.
    3. Social, C. E. (1950). Informe de la Comisión de Estudio de las hojas de la Coca. New York: Informe de la ONU, 13-175.

    Categories: NEWS , ADF
    Tags: Human Rights , Ayahuasca Defense Fund , law , coca