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Bolivia's Morales to UN: Legalize coca-leaf chewing

By Marilia Brocchetto, CNN
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Tue March 13, 2012
  • Coca leaves is the raw ingredient used in the making of cocaine
  • The leaves have been declared an illegal substance
  • Bolivia is the third biggest coca producer in the world
  • Morales said coca in its raw state is not an addictive drug

(CNN) -- Holding up a coca leaf at a U.N. meeting on narcotics Monday, Bolivian President Evo Morales defended the practice of chewing on the leaves as tradition and urged the body to reconsider its decision to declare it illegal.

Coca leaves, the raw ingredient used in the making of cocaine, were declared an illegal substance under Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, along with heroin and others.

"I want to ask the assistance of the international community in correcting a historical error that was committed against the Bolivian people when it unreservedly ratified the Single Convention Against Narcotic Drugs of 1961," Morales told the 55th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Austria.

Bolivia has withdrawn from the convention, but said it would rejoin if the traditional consumption of coca leaf is allowed to continue.

Morales, a former union leader for coca growers, told the body his country has designated $20 million to fight cocaine trafficking -- but cultural "producers of coca leaf are not drug dealers; consumers of coca leaf are not drug addicts," he said.

"I want to stress that at no time Bolivia acts untimely or irresponsibly," he said.

Coca is widely used in the Andes as a mild stimulant and herbal medicine.

Advocates say the leaves, which contain small amounts of cocaine, have several health and social benefits and dismiss claims it is dangerous.

Morales has said "sacred" coca in its raw state is not an addictive drug and emphasizes that it has had a legitimate medical purpose for hundreds of years.

But coca remains the raw ingredient for the purified forms of cocaine, which are illegal for non-medicinal, non-government-sanctioned purposes in virtually all countries.

And for almost half a century the chewing of coca leaves has been banned internationally.

Bolivia is currently the world's third biggest coca producer after Colombia and Peru, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It has much to gain if its campaign to legalize coca leaves is successful.

Energy drinks, flour and even toothpaste derived from the leaves could be sold around the world.

One of these, Coca Colla, which trades on the name of the more famous U.S. soft drink that originally contained coca, has been a hit since its launch last year in Bolivia in 2010.

According to the Washington Office on Latin America, (WOLA) an American non-governmental organization, the United States is likely to oppose any move to have coca leaf removed from the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also opposed to any lifting of the ban.

CNN's Peter Wilkinson and Claudia Rebaza contributed to this report.

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