The Coca-Leaf Problem in Colombia


Coca chewing and cultivation of the coca shrub exist in Colombia but on a much smaller scale than in Peru and Bolivia. The regions of consumption and cultivation are limited to certain districts of the departments of Cauca and Huila. It might be of interest to the readers of the Bulletin on Narcotics to have in summarized form the information submitted by the Colombian Government concerning its efforts to fight the production and the consumption of the coca leaf. This summary has been prepared on the basis of the reports (1946-1950) sent by the Colombian Government in accordance with article 21 of the 1931 Convention.


Pages: 18 to 20
Creation Date: 1952/01/01


The Coca-Leaf Problem in Colombia

Coca chewing and cultivation of the coca shrub exist in Colombia but on a much smaller scale than in Peru and Bolivia. The regions of consumption and cultivation are limited to certain districts of the departments of Cauca and Huila. It might be of interest to the readers of the Bulletin on Narcotics to have in summarized form the information submitted by the Colombian Government concerning its efforts to fight the production and the consumption of the coca leaf. This summary has been prepared on the basis of the reports (1946-1950) sent by the Colombian Government in accordance with article 21 of the 1931 Convention.


In 1947, the Colombian Government issued the following decree:


"Decree No. 896 of 1947

" Whereas in accordance with the Conventions signed in Geneva in 1925 and 1931 the Republic is pledged to supervise the production, manufacture, distribution and sale of narcotic drugs; and


" Whereas article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946 prohibits the cultivation and preservation of plants from which the said substances may be extracted; and


" Whereas in accordance with article 27, section 1, of Decree No. 2127 of 1945, employers are forbidden, to pay wages in kind, vouchers, tokens or by any other means replacing the legal currency of the country,


"It is decreed that:


" Article 1. The payment of wages or of any kind of emoluments wholly or partly in alcoholic beverages or in coca leaf is prohibited, and agreements or contracts for service containing any such stipulations shall be null and void.


" Article 2 All persons contravening (his regulation shall be punished by fines ranging from one hundred (100.00) to five hundred (500.00) pesos, or by imprisonment in lieu of such part thereof as may be provided for by law, such penalties to be imposed by labour inspectors, justices of the peace and other health or police authorities.

" Paragraph In cases of repetition of the offence, the penalties shall be those prescribed in article 270 of the Penal Code.


" Article 3 In accordance with the provisions of article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946, the cultivation of coca trees (erythroxylon coca) and varieties thereof and of cannabis sativa (marihuana) and the distribution and sale of the leaves of these plants, are prohibited in the territory of the Republic.


" Article 4. Justices of the peace, corregidores and other health and police authorities shall destroy plantations of such trees and confiscate leaves found in the market, other than coca leaves belonging to duly authorized pharmacies, provided that those establishments duly declare them within a period of forty days from the entry into force of this Decree.


" Article 5 Any person on whom morphine, cocaine, heroin or any other narcotic drug is found and who has no legal permission to possess them, shall be considered as an illicit trafficker and shall be liable to the penalties prescribed by article 1 of Law No. 45 of 1946.

" Article 6. Justices of the peace, corregidores and other health or police authorities failing, in any such case, to lay any information before the criminal courts against persons violating this regulation, shall be fined from fifty (50.00) to two hundred (200.00) pesos by their respective superiors, for the first offence, and by removal from office on a second offence."


(Signed) Mariano Ospina PÉREZ


(Signed) Jorge BEJARANO  (Minister of Hygiene)

This decree set off a sharp controversy and in order to collect authorized opinions Dr. G. Bonilla Iragorri, Departmental Director of Health of Cauca, distributed the following questionnaire among medical practioners in the department

  1. What is your opinion on the consumption of coca as a nutritional factor, an economic factor and a social factor?

  2. Do you believe-that the Government should continue to allow Indians to consume coca leaves daily?

The answers to this questionnaire were summarized in vol. II, no. 4 of the Bulletin on Narcotics. They aimed at establishing that:

  1. Coca is not a food;

  2. Coca is a toxic and like all toxics is harmful:

  3. Mastication can only be considered as a social evil;

  4. Chewing must be suppressed.

The opposition to Decree No. 896 took, however, such proportions that the Government of Colombia was compelled to suspend its application.


In a memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Health to the Colombian Congress, the difficulties encountered by the Colombian authorities in their struggle against the chewing of coca leaf are described as follows:


"From time immemorial the vice of coca chewing has existed as a legacy of Inca days in some districts of the departments of Cauca and Huila, where it is undermining the health and racial vigour of the Indian population and threatening to spread to neighbouring agricultural areas. The gravity of this problem lies not only in the harmful effects of the drug but in the fact that, because of the false sense of repletion it gives, coca-leaf chewers use it as a substitute for food, become victims of malnutrition and easily fall prey to epidemics - in particular to the deadly scourge of tuberculosis. The elimination of this vice, though a simple matter in appearance, meets with enormous obstacles. The greatest is the community of interest, in this connexion, between the Indian worker, an addict by tradition and heredity, and the employer who exploits this habit and reaps the benefit of a labourer who eats little and goes all through the working day without taking time off to eat or rest after meals. To combat this vice, Decree No. 896 of 1947 was issued, ordering the destruction of plantations, the confiscation of stocks of coca leaf and the prohibition, under penalties, of the payment of wages in coca leaf - the practice in the districts concerned. The decree aroused a veritable storm among the interested parties, both employers and workers. The former felt that their pecuniary interests were affected, while the latter, feeling that a blow had been struck at one of their most cherished habits, went so far as to threaten rebellion. The Ministry was compelled by this situation to issue Decree No. 1472, postponing the earlier Decree and providing for the gradual replacement of coca plantations by food crops adequate for the needs of the districts involved."


In its report for 1948, the Colombian Government described the situation concerning the coca-leaf problem as follows:


"As a rule the coca shrub is not cultivated as an independent crop; it is generally subsidiary to other crops such as coffee, maize and bananas. In accordance with resolution 578 of 1941, trade in the coca leaf is subject to a permit from the health authorities of its place of cultivation. The inspectorates of the national health police and the departmental health directorates are responsible for controlling its distribution. Government warehouses do not purchase the leaf which is bought by pharmacies and laboratories for the preparation of extracts or tinctures. The Decree No. 896 of 1947 prohibited the payment of wages and remuneration of any kind whatsoever in coca leaf. It also forbade the cultivation of the coca shrubs and its varieties and the distribution and sale of the shrub. In view of the serious difficulties which arose when an attempt was made to put this measure into force Decree No. 1472 was issued during the same year to postpone for one year the effect of article 4 of Decree No. 896 ordering the destruction of coca-leaf plantations and to provide that a census should be taken of coca-shrub plantations with the following particulars: number of shrubs, areas under cultivation, number of proprietors, approximate value of the plantations and annual production in kilogrammes. In Colombia neither crude nor refined cocaine nor ecgonine are manufactured. There are therefore no establishments for that purpose."

In the same report, the Colombian Government stated that Decree No. 3822, 1948, had been issued forbidding the sale of coca leaf in public markets, shops or places of sale other than duly registered pharmacies and drug dispensaries. The text of this decree is as follows:


" Article 1: As from the date on which this decree comes into force, the sale of coca leaf shall be prohibited in public markets, shops or any place of sale whatsoever, other than duly registered pharmacies and drug dispensaries.


" Article 2: If a person is guilty of a contravention of these provisions he shall be punished by the confiscation of the coca leaf and a fine of not less than 100 nor more than 500 pesos which can be converted into a term of imprisonment at the statutory rate; these penalties shall be imposed by the authorities specified in the following article.


" Article 3: Departmental and municipal directors of public health, directors of health centres, national laboratory and pharmacy inspectors, national or municipal health inspectors, mayors, judges (corregidores) and police authorities, or the persons acting in their stead, shall be responsible for ensuring strict observance of this decree.


" Sole paragraph. If any person holding authority as above stated fails to ensure the observance of this provision he shall be punished by his competent superior by a fine of fifty pesos for the first offence and dismissal from his post for a subsequent offence.

" Article 4: This decree shall come into force on the date of its approval and shall be publicly proclaimed in all the municipalities of the country".


In 1949, the Cauca Departmental Directorate continued its campaign against coca-leaf chewing. The Departmental Director, however, was compelled to report that it had been impossible to destroy the plantaoptions because the municipal authorities themselves were opposed to it.


The following communication from Dr. Jorge Bejarano, then Minister of Health, to the Municipal Council of Bolivar illustrates the difficulties arising in respect of the destruction of coca plantations:


"I have received your letter no. 254 of 27 April last, containing a proposal approved by your corporation, relating to the campaign against the cultivation of and trade in coca leaves. The above-mentioned proposal states that one of the most serious problems affecting that region is the control, and prosecution of owners and the destruction of coca plantations without compensation, a measure which will cause prejudice to thousands of our fellow countrymen. In the opinion of this Ministry, whose primary obligation is to defend the health of our compatriots, the greatest scourge afflicting your municipality is the vice of coca-leaf chewing which ruins the lives of most of your people, and which I am hoping to combat as successfully as I have combated chicha since I place my faith in the good sense of the leaders of your community, amongst whom I must assign a prominent place to you. The Government could hardly compensate the coca-leaf growers, since under the provisions of Act 45 of 1946, which is part of the Penal Code, the cultivation, possession, sale or distribution of coca is an offence punishable by a prison sentence of six months to five years and a fine of 50 to 1,000 pesos (US$25.65-513). As regards the commercialization of coca-leaf production, as would appear to be suggested in the proposal to which I am referring, I am sorry to have to inform you that the consumption of cocaine, according to the statistics compiled by the Central Opium Board, is decreasing as it is being replaced by synthetic anaesthetics, which are less toxic and not habit-forming."


In 1950, however, new efforts were made regarding the suppression of the chewing of coca leaf, efforts which are described in the following circular of theMinistry of Health sent to the Public Prosecutor's Office:



"I wish to draw your attention to the fact that the Ministry of Health is proposing very shortly to initiate an active campaign for the complete abolition of coca plantations on national territory, as a means to stamp out this vice among the people. This campaign will be carried on in compliance with the laws in force, a copy of which is attached herewith, and plantations will be destroyed after payment of compensation to the owners. As I am hoping in this task to receive the collaboration of the police authorities coming under the Public Prosecutor's Office I venture to inform you that the Ministry of Health would be grateful for any suggestion which you may care to make for the coordination of this collaboration in order to render it as effective as possible. After study of the suggestions, which you may see fit to make, this Department will proceed to consider which would be the most suitable date to start the campaign. Studies of the zones in which the plant was cultivated have already been made and the number of shrubs in existence has been more or less determined. A plan has been suggested to compensate the cultivators not by means of cash payments, but by replacing their coca plantations by other more suitable crops, on which subject we are receiving advice from special agricultural experts. Material will also be provided for improvement of farms - barbed wire fencing, fertilizers, seed, etc."


In its report for 1950, the Government of Colombia mentions also that immediately upon being notified of the publication of the report of the United Nations Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf in Peru and Bolivia, the Narcotic Section of the Ministry of Health requested the Economic and Social Council to supply copies of the document, Which were transmitted in due course. The report adds that this study will be of great value in the campaign now being undertaken in Colombia to combat the vice of coca-leaf chewing.