‘Symbol of life’: where taking drugs is a sacred act

The war on drugs is presented as a battle against social evils. But from the Andes to the Caribbean, prohibition has criminalised cultural expression. Español

Benjamin Ramm
26 April 2016

Coca leaf producers, Bolivia, 2013. PA Images / Juan Karita. All rights reserved.

Coca leaf producers, Bolivia, 2013. PA Images / Juan Karita. All rights reserved.It begins with the careful parceling out of coca leaves, into small bundles called k’intus. The tip of each leaf points to the sky, to Inti (the sun god), while the stem is directed to Pachamama, mother earth. The bundle is blessed with a gentle breath, and offered as a gift to a sacred place, sometimes with a wish (‘may the rain stop’). The bundles are then exchanged – k’intus are always prepared for others, unless one is alone. Elders are prioritised, as are guests; reciprocity is key, and the process is an important part of social mediation. Once the exchanges are complete, a benediction is shared: hallpakusunchis. Let us chew coca together.

This ritual is performed up to five times a day across the Andes, binding people to their communities and their ancestral traditions. “Coca is our culture and our identity”, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales told the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) last week, emphasising that for indigenous people the plant is a symbol of life, not death. In the nations that make up the former Inca empire – Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and northern Argentina – the consumption of this plant is legal; yet under international law, coca leaf is classed as a narcotic drug on a par with cocaine. In 2016, the EU still refuses to back an amendment to the 1961 Single Convention that would acknowledge the legitimacy of coca consumption.

Critiques of the 'war on drugs' focus disproportionately on the developed world: on a lack of harm reduction, and the futility of prohibition. But in the developing world, an actual war is taking place, with unprecedented levels of violence – during Mexico’s counter-narcotics surge between 2007 to 2014, an estimated 164,000 people were killed, a higher number than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

For indigenous people the plant is a symbol of life, not death.

Militarisation has been selectively implemented: the Netherlands is a leading producer of illegal narcotics, but it is unthinkable that it would become a theatre of war. In Colombia, a 20-year US-funded campaign to eradicate coca by aerial bombardment has failed not only to reduce supply, but contaminated waterways and food crops, and may have carcinogenic consequences (according to the WHO, glyphosate is “probably cancer-causing”). President Juan Manuel Santos highlighted the double-standard in the General Assembly: “how do you tell a Colombian peasant that he can’t grow marijuana when people in Colorado can?” 

Colombia is the de-facto leader of the Cartagena group, a loose confederation of reform-minded nations, opposed to what Santos describes as “counterproductive and cruel” criminalisation. Across the continent, prohibition is advocated by authoritarian statists on both the left and right, while reform is a position derived either from conviction, practicality, or fatigue. The global north has viewed Morales as a comrade of Castro, but Cuba has been among the most aggressively prohibitionist advocates in recent decades. In truth, Morales is more of an indigenist than a socialist; unlike Castro, his politics are more communitarian than statist. Even politicians friendly to the US, such as Mexico’s plutocratic president Enrique Peña Nieto, are breaking with prohibition. Peña Nieto attended the UNGASS after a dramatic volte-face, and surprised the Assembly by calling for “a transition from prohibition to effective prevention and effective regulation”.

At a pop-up exhibition in midtown Manhattan called "The Museum of Drug Policy", I met Amapola (‘opium poppy’), a Peruvian peasant activist at odds with her government’s increasingly hawkish approach to prohibition. She told me about being excluded from the process of decision-making: “we have no real participation – agriculture is not represented, and the interests of farmers are neglected”. Outgoing president Ollanta Humala, elected on an indigenist-leftist ticket, failed to improve conditions. “We have not seen greater justice: there is still repression, and little respect for the rights of workers and peasants”.

Now, to the horror of human rights campaigners, Peru is set to elect Keiko Fujimori, daughter of an imprisoned ex-president whose office was characterised by privatisation, corruption, and repression. Amapola says that Keiko is “a candidate of the capital [Lima], and of capitalists”, and remembers Fujimori’s tenure as a time of “assassinations, incarcerations, disappearances” – it was he who pursued a policy of forced sterilisation in indigenous areas; arguably an act of genocide.

This issue has thrust the Caribbean to the forefront of the reformist movement.

At a roundtable discussion at the exhibition, policy analyst Vicki Hanson described the criminalisation of cannabis as “a war on culture” – an assault on Rastafarian religious tradition. Hanson challenged the audience to look beyond the recreational image of marijuana to acknowledge its ceremonial and medicinal significance. This issue has thrust the Caribbean to the forefront of the reformist movement. “Jamaica is the new Bolivia”, says Pien Metaal of the Transnational Institute. Metaal is insightful on how prohibitionist drug policy evolved from a limited European understanding of the ritual role of hallucinogenic plants. Liberalism is astute on the virtue of personal choice, but it underestimates the importance of communal bonds.

The late Eduardo Galeano, always a perceptive observer of the iniquities of globalisation, wrote on the eve of the millennium:

“Five centuries ago, the people and the lands of the Americas were incorporated into the world market as things. A few conquerors, the conquered conquerors, were able to fathom the American plurality, and they lived within it and for it; but the Conquest, a blind and blinding enterprise like all imperial invasions, was capable of recognising the indigenous people, and nature, only as objects to be exploited or as obstacles. Cultural diversity was dismissed as ignorance and punished as heresy, in the name of a single god, a single language and a single truth, and this sin of idolatry merited flogging, hanging or the stake.”

Embrace legalisation, say the reformists, and incorporate drugs into the world market of things, so they may be treated as a commodity, like soya or timber. But this ought to tell us that liberalisation is only a limited solution: the global market is inherently indifferent to the fates of those cultivating and producing goods. Most consumers are unconcerned by the conditions of those who toil, in part because their labours are out of sight. Legalisation of narcotics will not solve the social crises of the global south, although it will bring greater peace and stability and lessen corruption. Social justice requires a profound shift in our relationship with the developing world: one that is symbiotic, rather than parasitic. And it demands we reassess our attitude to how other cultures use drugs – because, as Amapola says, “it is more important than the market; it is sacred.”

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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