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DRUGS -- Not cocaine, but made from coca

Some coca ointment on your arm? ALEXANDER PROVAN explores Bolivia's effort to market non-drug coca products, from cookies to tea.

West Fargo Pioneer, December 07, 2006
By ALEXANDER PROVAN

"Coca, coca, coca!"

The Aymara women beckoned from beneath a golden tent in a corner of Plaza de Alonso Mendoza, elbow-deep in towering burlap sacks filled with emerald leaves. Around them, other tents housed pyramids of honey-stuffed coca wafers and bottles of coca shampoo.

Cristobal Benavides, a 32-year-old Peruvian with a frayed ponytail, condor earrings and a "Coma-Coca" ("Eat-Coca") T-shirt, encouraged me to rub my arm with a coca-based ointment for "increased mental health and vigor." Other vendors hawked coca bread, cookies, candy, frosted cake and other comestibles; coca-infused alcohol, reminiscent of tequila crossed with lemon liqueur; ointments and medicine to treat gastritis, hemorrhoids, fungus, gout, arthritis and diabetes.

The only thing missing was the Evo Cola, a coca-infused soft drink inspired by Bolivian President Evo Morales that should be on the market sometime next year.

The Fourth Annual Coca and Sovereignty Fair, sponsored by the government and a host of advocacy groups, provided a public showcase for the latest industrial coca products. Though the plant is better known as the source of cocaine, coca has long been sacred to Bolivia's many indigenous groups for its palliative and therapeutic properties.

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COCA, THEN AND NOW

Coca leaves have been found in the hands of mummies buried over 4,000 years ago. And in the mines of Potosi, Bolivia, Spanish overlords doled out the plant to slave laborers, who chewed it to stave off hunger and endure inhumane conditions. They worked up to 40 hours without sleeping.

Today, construction workers, taxi drivers and farmers pack their mouths with wads of leaves to stave off hunger, stay awake and make physical labor more bearable. Coca tea, the most widely consumed derivative of the plant, is even recommended by the U.S. Embassy to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.

"The leaf produces so much more than the drug," says Nora Chambilla, a 35-year-old Bolivian selling orange and banana cakes made with coca flour. She hopes the fair proves that "coca products offer so much more than the leaf," and notes that her mother has eaten the cakes for 20 years to ease the pain of diabetes.

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COCA & THE WORLD

Morales, an Aymara Indian, cut his political teeth battling the U.S.-led war on drugs as a coca growers union leader. He campaigned on the slogan, "Yes to coca, no to cocaine."

Since Morales took office last December, this poverty-stricken nation has embarked on a campaign to manufacture and trade a variety of coca products on the foreign market. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Morales ally, recently provided $1 million for research on the benefits of coca and for construction of two factories to manufacture coca products.

The Bolivian government expects to make the first major shipments of coca products to Cuba and Venezuela by the end of the year. China, Argentina and India have also expressed interest in importing coca tea.

But the government and coca merchants face a major hurdle: Since the U.N.'s passage of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, all illicit manufacture and trafficking of derivatives of the coca bush, including frosted cake and hemorrhoid ointment, have been illegal.

A clause in the convention permits "the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavoring agent" -- an exception made for the benefit of Coca-Cola, which has used elements of the plant in its secret formula since 1886 and continues to buy coca imported by a third party from Peru under a special deal with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

At the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, Morales brandished a coca leaf he had smuggled into the country above the rostrum and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy. "This is the coca leaf," he said. "It is green, and not white like cocaine."

But the reality of coca isn't that simple.

In Washington, where Morales was once referred to as a "narco-terrorist," senior officials have expressed dissatisfaction with Bolivia's eradication efforts and are threatening to repeal trade preferences. Morales, in turn, has said the U.S. should focus on curtailing demand in its own country and has denounced the war on drugs as "blackmail" and an attempt at "re-colonization."

Despite this, in the first week of November, the Bolivian press reported on an agreement between the two countries to build a military base to curb trafficking in Bolivia's Yungas region.

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ECONOMICS & LAW

Jorge Hurtado, the government's counselor on coca affairs, is spearheading what he calls the "huge enterprise" of developing international markets for coca products and removing the plant from the U.N. convention. He says it's unlikely Bolivia will be able to convince U.N. member states of the feasibility of Morales' "Yes to coca, no to cocaine" mantra when the convention comes up for amendment at the 2008 meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

Most experts agree that "coca was mistakenly included as a dangerous substance" by the U.N., says Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. Youngers laments that subsequent studies recommending coca be removed from the list, "including a major effort by the World Health Organization in the 1990s, have been consistently squashed by the U.S. government."

"We are fighting 500 years of disinformation," stresses Hurtado, Bolivia's foremost coca expert.

A gregarious psychiatrist, Hurtado can detail coca's chemical properties and quote an indigenous legend chronicling the plant's divine origin in the same breath. He's been working to amend the U.N. convention for over a quarter century.

"I don't think we have a very good chance this time," he says, "but in the coming years we will."

The effort echoes the work of industrial hemp advocates in the U.S. In California last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have rejected the federal government's position and established clear guidelines for farming industrial hemp.

Because the cannabis sativa plant is classified as a drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it is illegal for U.S. farmers to grow industrial hemp, which contains trace amounts of THC -- the active ingredient in marijuana -- and is used in a variety of food, body care and industrial products. Domestic retail sales of such products, which can be purchased legally, exceeded $270 million last year.

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COCA CULTURE

While any coca-fueled economic windfall in Bolivia is years away, the cultural symbolism of exporting coca was palpable at the fair. Jacinta MamanĆ, a 43-year-old member of the Regional Federation of Chamaca, a coca growers union, believes exporting coca products will help expose people to indigenous cultures that have been historically repressed.

"We believe that coca needs to be known internationally, as medicine and as culture," she asserted at the fair as she packed leaves of organically grown "ecological coca" into translucent green bags.

"Coca is the force of Andean culture," said Oscar Gabriel, who displayed his hand-crafted guitars inlaid with images of coca leaves and Mother Earth.

"In America, they know nothing of our culture -- to them coca is only a drug. Banning coca is like outlawing corn for American Indians if you found out that a drug could be made with it."

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asap contributor Alexander Provan is a freelance writer.