The Real Thing: Coca

Bolivian president Evo Morales implored the United Nations last week to give the coca leaf a new life. A former coca farmer himself, Morales asked the General Assembly to focus on coca's possible future as the raw material for a lucrative consumer-goods industry--not its nefarious present, as the source of the international cocaine trade. "This is the coca leaf, it is green, and not white like cocaine," Morales lectured, waving one limp little leaf at the hall of surprised dignitaries. Why, he demanded, is it "legal for Coca-Cola" but not other consumer or medicinal uses?

Morales is campaigning to roll back a 45-year-old U.N. ban on trade in coca products. Under pressure from the United States, which has spent billions to eradicate coca as part of its war on drugs, Morales has reluctantly destroyed more acres of coca than his predecessors. While the Bush administration says he's still not doing enough, Morales wants to double to 24,000 hectares the amount of land that Bolivia set aside long ago to grow coca for legal uses. Armed with scientific studies, Bolivian officials are attacking the perception that coca itself is harmful to health. They argue that legal products could be a viable alternative to growing the plant for use in cocaine, and far more effective than trying to wipe out the "hoja sagrada," or sacred leaf that has been a staple of Andean daily life and religious rituals since ancient times.

Meantime, in the coca-producing countries of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, dozens of businesses are developing new coca-based products, from toothpaste to wine. In Bolivia, industrial production of coca tea began in the 1980s, and since 2000, small companies have put out some 30 different products--coca bread and pastas, toothpaste and shampoo, ointments, candies, liquors. The Morales government recently set aside $1 million to further develop legal coca products. One company now has a soft drink called "Evo Cola" in the works.

In Peru, the state coca company, Enaco, has been turning out local teas for years and is now expanding. Earlier this year Enaco closed a deal to export 153,000 packets of coca tea to South Africa (which never signed the U.N. convention). Enaco also sells coca leaves to private Peruvian companies, including a coca-cookie maker and an energy-drink company. Abroad, it supplies coca for use as an anesthetic in Japan and Belgium, and as a flavoring to Coca-Cola. (An exception to the U.N. ban, believed to have been negotiated for Coca-Cola, allows exports of coca from which certain active ingredients have been extracted.) In Colombia, the Nasa Indians recently introduced a soft drink called "Coca-Sek", already a national best seller.

The economics of legal coca make sense for farmers, says Ricardo Hegedus, general manager of Windsor, one of Bolivia's largest companies. Windsor buys 13 metric tons of coca leaf annually for use in tea, and is introducing a coca iced-tea mix this year. Hegedus says it pays about $6 a kilo to coca growers, more than the $5 paid by cocaine traffickers. Some Bolivian coca companies are now "growing a lot and using new technologies," says Hegedus, adding that coca tea in particular is likely to do well on the world market "if we can gain the freedom to export."

Recently, the U.N. has shown some willingness to reconsider the health questions. A 1975 Harvard study found that coca is rich in iron, phosphorous, calcium, vitamin A and riboflavin. A 1995 World Health Organization study found no health problems related to the coca leaf, and recommended study of its potential health benefits. Roger Carvajal, Bolivia's vice-minister of Science and Technology, says coca has been found to ease stress and aid circulation and breathing.

The United States has not responded officially to the legalization campaign, but is unlikely to support it, after spending so much to destory coca. Bolivian officials say controls could be put in place to make sure coca plants are not diverted to the cocaine trade, and that a legal coca industry would reduce the supply available to traffickers. Roberto Laserna, a Bolivian social scientist, says that since eradication has failed to cut the cocaine supply, the United States ought to consider a new approach. Over a harmless cup of tea, perhaps.