Bolivia: Constitutional Law on Drugs

The hotel at which I stayed in San José de Chiquitos (I didn’t find any Couchsurfing host there) banned not only the indoor use of dogs, cats and cigarettes, but also of coca leaves.

no coca

This prohibition surprised me because coca leaves enjoy a special status under the Bolivian Constitution, whose Articles 33, 34 and 380-392 not only protect the environment as a whole, but whose Art. 384 protects one plant in particular. (Actually, Art. 392 para. 2 also grants special protection to the rubber tree and to the chestnut tree, if I translated that correctly. Heck, I am a lawyer, not a botanist.)

Coca art 384

It sounds strange how sentence 2 of that article tries to equip a scientific fact (of which I don’t know how undisputed it is) with unassailable constitutional backing. Sentence 3 lets the truth shine through: It’s not about protecting the plant, but the business and the jobs derived from growing and harvesting coca. Maybe the constitution was, like so many other things in Bolivia, sponsored by Coca Cola.

I am generally skeptical of overburdening a state’s founding or governing document with too many details. This is often an attempt by a large parliamentary majority (usually 2/3) to enshrine in the constitution what should really belong in regular laws to protect it from being changed once that side loses their super-majority. In other words, it’s an attempt to govern beyond one’s elected term.

Not only in constitutions, but regarding regular laws and contracts, I am very skeptical when it comes to verbose language that is hard to nail down. When my clients want to insert some lofty principles or ideas into contracts, I always ask them: “How do you want to enforce that?”

The Bolivian Constitution with its 411 articles is a bad example of such useless verbosity, which helps no one, except law students searching for the topic of an equally verbose and useless PhD thesis. Take Art. 8 para. 1 for example:

art 8 lazy

So I don’t have the right to be lazy? Or does this only concern the state itself? But then what happens if its highest representatives turn out to be liars? In reality, nothing happens. Good law-drafting is like good writing: if it doesn’t add anything useful, take it out.

Reading on, it seems that Bolivia is indeed opposed to laziness. I personally cherish laziness, so I am happy that Art. 108 no. 5 only applies to Bolivian citizens.

art 108 dutiesart 108 work

It’s tough enough that working is an obligation, but the phrase “according to one’s physical and intellectual capacity” is a huge burden to people with my range of talents and skills. “According to my physical ability,” does this mean I have to become a movie star? Or a special forces sniper? No, because Art. 108 no. 4 says that I have to “encourage a culture of peace”. But wait, Art. 108 no. 12 says that boys have to serve in the army, although Art. 10 para. 1 states that “Bolivia is a pacifist state”.

Wow, this constitution is a mess. Someone must have been on more than coca leaves when they wrote that. And we haven’t even started to discuss my “intellectual capacity,” which obviously would lie in constitutional law, among a million other things. What if I am qualified to work as a lawyer, but I prefer to write a weekly funny column for the newspaper? Or plant potatoes? Would I fall short of using my “intellectual capacity”? Who decides? What would be the consequences? How could anyone force me to be “productive”? Who determines what is “socially useful”?

This part of the constitution is made scarier yet because of its eerie resemblance to Art. 12 of the Soviet Union’s Constitution of 1936: “In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honor for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.’ ” Coincidence?

Art. 108 no. 6 which I have included above is also cute. An obligation to go to university and obtain a degree, well, that’s a perfect excuse for all these farming and mining children who are forced by their parents to contribute to the family income. “I am sorry, Dad, I know we need the bread, but it is my duty to study anthropology for four years.”

Anyway, now you see why I don’t have friends: We started talking about drugs, which caught your interest, but I ended up discussing political philosophy and constitutional law. Well, I better go to La Cancha market now and get a bag of coca leaves. – But we all know that I will end up at the library instead.

coca Morales

“Eat your vegetables!” (How could I forget to put this into the constitution? Another referendum, quick!)

(Hier gibt es diesen Artikel auf Deutsch.)

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Bolivia: Constitutional Law on Drugs

  1. Cecilia says:

    Hahaha great post! Congratulation!

    • Thank you!
      It shows that you are a lawyer too, because no one else will read this to the end. :-)

      I should analyze the constitution of each country I travel to.

    • Cecilia says:

      Well, i Liked you argumatation and how you ordered your ideias. The constitition of my country is beautiful, fear, humanist, harmony… But it Have no effectiveness, unfortunatly.
      the constitution of a country says a lot about your people…at least their ideas. So, Yes, you should read about. ;)

    • To be fair, a proper analysis of a constitution also would need to take into account the jurisprudence by the constitutional court. But, a I said, I am very lazy.

    • locotojhon says:

      “I should analyze the constitution of each country I travel to.”
      Good idea, Andreas! (Is that what really got you thrown in jail for a while?)
      Come to the USA, and analyze ours for us–please!
      While you’re at it, try to find out where in our constitution it allows our President (‘O-bomb-ya’) to attack/bomb a sovereign nation (Somalia, killing about one hundred-fifty people) that have not attacked us or threatened to do so, and posed no imminent threat, and was not authorized by Congress or any other authority to do so.
      Then compare and contrast that constitution and governance with Bolivia’s.
      At least concerning our constitution, you’d be invited (by me) to do so.
      P.S. For historical perspectives, read this:

    • I have a feeling you wouldn’t want to pay my fees.

  2. Cecilia says:

    Yes, you are.. Its a shame

  3. Miriam says:

    Interesting read. Did you end up going to the market or the library?

  4. matteo says:

    Fascinating as always. Love the legal mind breakdown of the simple leaf!

    • Thank you very much!
      That’s how my mind wanders and that’s why I never get anything done. I really had set out to write about coca, but once I started reading the constitution, I was so distracted.

      But good to know that some readers find it interesting or entertaining. I can always write more about law.

  5. locotojhon says:

    “Anyway, now you see why I don’t have friends:”
    Yes, Andreas, I think we can see why.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think that you do, though.
    I think it is because you believe you can go where you please, to insult whomever you choose, and do so in a way that insults others ‘innocently’–by the use of sarcasm, which is essentially mocking a person to their face by ridiculing them or their thoughts, or customs, or government or their elected leaders from your self-exalted, protected (as Bolivia’s ‘guest’) position. In your above critique, you have done all that and more, and if someone were to take offense at your serial insults and swat you, then they would be at fault, and you would be the ‘oh-so-innocently-aggrieved/assaulted-victim’,
    Do I have this about right, my friend?

    Perhaps it is a matter of perspective, where you might lack the understanding as to where Bolivia was about ten years ago, when it suffered under the rule of an imposed leader who only spoke Spanish, and with an English accent so strong his nickname was ‘El gringo’, and at the time, an herb that had been safely used for thousands of years and had cultural, religious and health significance and benefits for the vast majority of the population was declared illegal, as it was also illegal for Indios who had almost no rights at all, to even walk in the main square in La Paz..
    That, my friend, is the short list of ‘why’–your gratuitously insulting attitude..
    Even shorter, it is because you seem from your utterances to be somewhat of an egotistical a$$hole. More significantly, it seems that most of the people you meet feel the same way.
    Perhaps that is “why you don’t have friends”.
    Pleasantly instructive, I hope, locotojhon

    • I don’t think I insulted anyone. Constitutions aren’t really insultable, particularly not those that grant freedom of all kinds of expression.

      Like in your previous comments, it’s funny how you accuse me of being insulting while you can’t bring yourself to stop or even limit the use of insulting and arrogant language, let alone the unfounded allegations, distorted facts and non-sequiturs.

    • locotojhon says:

      “I don’t think I insulted anyone.”
      You don’t? Really? Think about it some more, and perhaps more insights can be gained as to why you claim to have no friends.
      At least it might be a start in the right direction that you could try.
      That is, if you could, unlikely as it seems, conceive that you might possibly be at fault.
      (Realistically, not much chance of that.)
      Trying to be optimistic here,,,locotojhon

    • Or, much easier, I will wait until someone contacts me who feels insulted. And then I’ll have a beer and a saltena with her/him and we’ll have a civilized discussion.

  6. Dino Bragoli says:

    Do the leaves work in a salad?

    • You’ll want more and more salad.

    • locotojhon says:

      Why do you spread such manure? (Though you seem to think otherwise, we’re not mushrooms to be kept in the dark while grown in your bullshit.)
      Point one: Sure, the fresh leaves would work in a salad, but they would not garner rave gastronomic revues because they are tough. The ones available at La concha from anyone other than picked straight off the bush have been dried so they won’t mold or rot.
      Point two: There is no medical or scientifically valid evidence supporting the erroneous belief that the leaves are addictive. When gringos came to the Andes and refined the sacred leaves into poisonous cocaine, that substance is indeed highly addictive, and is outlawed in Bolivia. Back when I used to fly Bolivian airlines into Bolivia, we could help to prepare ourselves for the high altitude on the way into El Alto (airport of La Paz) by requesting coca tea from the stewardesses. The adjustment from low to high altitudes can be very stressful, and can in some cases be fatal. Coca leaves have been used for millennia to combat those effects.
      Andreas should have said so, instead of spreading falsehoods.
      Still fighting the good fight against bullshit,,,locotojhon

    • I am having coca tea now and it contains enough cocaine that I could fail a drug test today.

      I always find it funny when people think they have to drink coca tea before going to La Paz (4,000 meters above sea level) when they criss-cross the world all the time in planes that fly at 10,000 meters of altitude. This habit seems to be something folkloristic, which is done for the benefit of gringos who can then tell stories about how “high” they were, not realizing that sitting in a jet is really not the same as hiking up to high altitudes.
      Meanwhile thousands of people fly to La Paz every day and hundreds of thousands live there, without ever chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea, and without dying. Also, nobody chews coca leaves or drinks coca tea when they fly to similarly high-lying airports in China.

      Boy, I already feel the addiction. I am off to the kitchen to prepare a second cup of this tea…

  7. David says:

    Great piece! I read it to the end – and I’m not a lawyer (though my grandmother wanted me to be one).

    I especially like your take on constitutions. One of my favorite presidents had a good point re the Soviet constitution, but i’m not going to be more specific for fear of offending certain commentors who might have short fuses.

    But the point is – one can learn a lot by analyzing a consitution, and not just looking at it superficially.

    • Thank you!
      I am elated about the interest in constitutional law, I will tr to write more about it, while trying not to bore anyone to death.

      I hope you are as happy about disregarding your grandmother’s preferences as I am about disregarding the wishes of mine. She would have been proud if I had worked for the local savings & loan bank, which was as high as her dreams reached.

      I’ll just insert the quote which I think you alluded to:

      Ronald Reagan (8 July 1987):

      Two Soviets . . . were talking to each other. And one of them asked, “What’s the difference between the Soviet Constitution and the United States Constitution?” And the other one said, “That’s easy. The Soviet Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of gathering. The American Constitution guarantees freedom after speech and freedom after gathering.”

      Like I wrote in one of my comments above, one really does need to consider the jurisprudence and the practical application, too. Even more so in cases of lofty-words-constitutions.

    • David says:

      1. Well, I admit that I sometimes regret it…
      2. You’re an amazing guesser – so amazing that you guessed something that I indeed had attributed in my mind to Reagan, but it was actually the later Antonin Scalia who said it. See here.
      3. There was an attempt to introduce a constituton to Israel a while ago, but as the country is divided on many things, they only agreed to introduce a few “Basic/Foundation Laws” instead (the ones a large majority agreed upon).

    • Re 3: That’s not too bad for a young country. After all, the United Kingdom still doesn’t have a constitution in that sense at all. ;-)

    • Re 1: You can still go back to university. You just need to pick a country with free tuition, then you can do it for fun. – I am already looking forward to go back to university in a few years. I miss it. There are still so many things I want to study.

  8. Pingback: Bolivien: Verfassungsrecht auf Drogen | Der reisende Reporter

  9. David says:

    Young in one sense, old in another :-) – Altneuland!

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