Is the Pope a cocaine trafficker?

The Pope has proudly and publicly consumed coca tea – which contains cocaine – on a flight from Ecuador to Bolivia. What are the implications for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and for the global drug control system?


Coca leaf and coca leaf tea contain small amounts of cocaine, and all the cocaine consumed around the world is refined from the same Andean coca. So just to be clear: the Pope was consuming cocaine, and crucially, unlike communion wine – which he uses ritualistically – he was using it specifically for its stimulant drug effect.

Traditional coca-using communities are understandably keen to stress the difference between coca leaf and the modern Western inventions of cocaine powder and crack cocaine. ‘La hoja de coca no es Droga’ (coca leaf is not a drug) is a popular slogan. Whilst use of the leaf is more functional than pleasure seeking (you don’t get high from chewing or drinking tea) it does contain between 0.5 and 1% of the psychoactive cocaine alkaloid – so technically it is a drug, and people use it primarily for its drug effects. There is, however, only a relatively tiny dose of cocaine in the chewed leaf or tea, but it’s enough to provide some mild stimulation – similar to the effect that coffee has – and if chewed, can produce a mild numbing sensation in the mouth from the cocaine’s anaesthetic effects (which are still utilised in the legal pharmaceutical preparation of cocaine). Coca’s stimulant properties are useful, as the Pope apparently knows, for counteracting altitude sickness, and the leaf has been used beneficially for centuries by indigenous Andean communities, without causing any notable health problems.

When the same drug is refined into powder cocaine and snorted (usually in its hydrochloride salt form), the dose is much higher, the onset much quicker, the effects correspondingly more intense, and the risks much greater. If injected, or processed further into smokable rocks of crack cocaine (in its freebase form), the intensity of the drug’s effect – and risks – increase still further. The Pope was not (as far as we know) snorting cocaine, or smoking crack on the plane – but his prophylactic draft of coca tea contained the same stimulant drug.

In drinking the coca tea, and doing so publicly, he has usefully highlighted some important truths often lost in the drug debate: that different preparations of the same drug can be associated with very different levels of risk; that not all drug using behaviours are harmful; and that, indeed, drug use can have actual benefits – as he presumably discovered emerging from his plane with an extra spring in his step in La Paz at 3650m above sea level. His public pronouncements have, thus far, unfortunately failed to capture any of this nuance; in 2014 he declared a resolute: ‘No to every type of drug use. It is as simple as that’. He notably did not say: ‘No to every type of drug use – oh, except coca when I fancy a little pick-me-up on a flight to La Paz’.

It is also important to be clear that because of its cocaine content, coca leaf is illegal under the UN drug control treaties and in every country in the world, with one exception. If the Pope had drunk the coca tea in Bolivia, he would have been fine, since Bolivia is the only country where coca is fully legal, having recently withdrawn from the 1961 treaty that specifically bans coca, and re-joined it with a reservation on the offending article. But, according to news reports, he drank the tea on the plane from Ecuador to Bolivia. So at least whilst in Ecuadorian, or Peruvian air space (or Brazilian or Chilean – we don’t know his route) possession of coca would have been in violation of international law under the UN drug treaties. Had he had cup in hand whilst flying across a border, that would presumably count as exporting illicit coca from Ecuador, making the Pope, technically at least, guilty of trafficking a schedule 1 drug. Obviously there's zero chance of any prosecution, but it’s worth pointing out just to highlight the ludicrous nature of the global drug control framework we still live under.  

The Pope’s public declaration of his coca use has usefully highlighted the historical injustice that traditional Andean coca using communities have suffered, Not just in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, but throughout the Andean region, including the North of his native Argentina. Fears about cocaine use in the West effectively led to the criminalisation of entire Andean indigenous communities, via UN treaties that were drafted in the 40s and 50s, entirely without the participation of the affected populations. The Pope's public gesture appears to be a deliberate critique of at least this one egregious element of UN drug treaty law. More broadly, it’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of the need to revisit the malfunctioning old UN drug control framework than the leader of the Catholic church – with 1.2 billion followers – going out of his way to proudly and publicly flout it.

Any debate on these issues is obviously welcome, but the Pope’s reforming zeal on the drugs issue, in reality, remains very limited. The Vatican recently called drug dealing one of seven ‘new’ deadly sins, whilst the Pope last year spoke out against harm reduction, and described drug addiction as an ‘evil’ – ironically echoing the preamble of the 1961 UN drug convention he has just snubbed. In the same speech last year the Pope spoke out against the legalisation of ‘so-called recreational drugs’, efforts which ‘are not only highly questionable from a legislative standpoint, but they fail to produce the desired effects’.  A confused position rather at odds with his apparent endorsement of Bolivia’s evidently successful legalisation of coca.

There has not even been support from the Pope for the growing calls (from amongst others, Ban Ki Moon, Kofi Annan and the World Health Organization) to end the criminalisation of personal drug possession and use. Mass criminalisation of a consenting behaviour that predominantly impacts on the young, vulnerable and marginalised has never struck me as a very Christian position. Whatever one’s view of the morality of personal drug use, it’s important not to confuse it with moral policy making, something I would equate with policies that are effective at minimising harm and maximising wellbeing (i.e. not punitive, enforcement-based prohibitions).  Even if you think drug use is sinful, that’s not the same as it being criminal – a distinction it would be great to hear the Pope explore at some point. So, bravo Pope Francis for making a positive gesture on coca. Now, as a man of peace – how about helping to end the drug war?