Bolivia Funds Push for Legal Coca Market
March 12, 2008 - Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) -- President Evo Morales plans to spend $300,000 to develop legal markets for coca, defying a U.N.-affiliated drug watchdog's call to abolish traditional uses of the leaf long revered in the Andes.

Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, first announced the funding last month during a trip to the Chapare, a coca-growing region in central Bolivia, Vice Ministry of Social Defense spokesman Ilder Cejas said Tuesday.

The investment is part of a Bolivian government plan to promote the "industrialization" of coca leaf -- the main ingredient in cocaine -- into legal products such as tea, flour and herbal medicines Morales hopes will rescue the crop from the drug trade, Cejas said.

Morales also plans to raise the legal limit on coca production to 49,000 acres from 30,000. Both limits are still well below the estimated 68,000 acres of coca now in production, according to the U.N.

Morales' promotion of the coca leaf is a point of contention within the international community -- particularly for the U.S., which has spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars fighting Bolivia's crop as part of its war on drugs.

In its natural form, the leaf is sacred to indigenous groups and a central part of Bolivian life, served as tea instead of coffee in La Paz offices and chewed as a mild stimulant by miners and truck drivers to get through long working days.

But the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs lists the leaf alongside cocaine, heroin and opium as a Schedule I narcotic, and declared that coca chewing -- a custom that predates the Inca empire -- to be "abolished" worldwide by 1987.

The International Narcotics Control Board, charged with enforcing the 47-year-old treaty, released an annual report last week chiding Bolivia for not having followed the convention guidelines.