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Coca toothpaste? Bolivia tries to drum up demand for ‘legal’ coca products

The coca leaf — used to make cocaine — is classified as an illegal drug by international bodies. But the Bolivian government argues using more leaves for products like cookies and energy drinks could help curb trafficking.

The coca leaf is everywhere here. Its pungent smell rises from giant sacks presided over by indigenous women selling at street markets; and in local parks men hold pink plastic bags of it, slowly stuffing their cheeks with the leaf. Consuming coca is legal in Bolivia, and as waiters cheerfully plunk down cups of hot water with coca tea bags floating on top, you’d never guess the ever-present substance is classified as a narcotic drug by the United Nations (UN).

Despite its classification as an illegal drug under international regulations, in Bolivia coca has many mainstream uses. Chewing and tea drinking are embedded in society, medicinal products like coca-based salves to treat arthritis are easy to find, and it also plays an important role in religious ceremonies. Now the government, along with many small businesses here, are seeking ways to expand the coca leaf’s legal market and commercialize coca products for international sale.  

Dionisio Nuñez, Bolivia’s vice minister of coca, says that including the coca leaf in new products is a fundamental part of the government’s plan to curb drug trafficking. But international norms that severely restrict the export of coca products in any form get in the way of this nontraditional approach to fighting trafficking.

“This could be one of the best ways to contribute to the fight against drug-trafficking, because … [trafficking is] a shared responsibility between the countries that generate the supply and the countries that generate the demand,” Mr. Nuñez says. He says Bolivia would like other countries that currently consume cocaine to open their markets to mainstream products like coca tea or energy drinks.

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“That way we can use more coca leaves for legal industries that don’t damage people, and there would be less coca for drug traffic,”  Nuñez says.

‘If we could export…’

Coca has been cultivated for thousands of years in Andean South America, where it still has many medicinal and religious uses. But the leaf can also be processed into cocaine and crack, a fact that has placed coca in the crosshairs of the United States-led war on drugs for decades. Bolivia’sPresident Evo Morales, a former coca farmer himself, lived through some of the most violent standoffs between farmers and US-backed coca eradication forces. Still leader of the nation’s largest coca growers’ union, President Morales’ rallying cry of “coca yes, cocaine no,” was heard around the world as he expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2008 and scored a recent victory in the UN to legitimize coca chewing within Bolivia.

Government-funded industrialization of coca is moving forward slowly. A factory in the country’s central Chapare region, which is supposed to produce coca sweets, liquors, and cookies, is currently not operating. A second in La Paz is expected to start production this year.

Today, nearly all the Bolivian businesses that use coca leaf – some 40 are registered with the Directorate of the Coca Leaf and Industrialization – are privately owned. One such business is El Viejo Roble. In the distillery’s modest office on the outskirts of La Paz a display cabinet holds liquor and spirits made with the coca leaf. 

“We don’t survive just off sales of coca liquor, and we couldn’t,” says Miguel Angel Cárdenas, the distillery’s commercial manager. “If we could export, it would be another thing. But getting by in this country by selling only coca [products] is not possible.”

An ally in Morales

On a Wednesday afternoon in a conference room in the Vice Ministry of Coca, around twenty small business owners are gathered to discuss the challenges of industrializing the coca leaf. Some of them have been producing coca products like tea bags and medicinal syrups for decades, while others began recently with products like energy drinks, cookies, and toothpaste, encouraged by the Morales governments’ pro-coca stance. Many hope Morales’ drive means their products will soon reach markets in neighboring countries, or even Europe.

Bolivia is home to just 10 million people. The commercial export of coca products, even to neighboring countries is prohibited under the United Nations’ 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs unless those products contain less than .1 percent cocaine alkaloid. Potentially, businesses could contract a laboratory to extract alkaloids from the coca leaf inside Bolivia and then manufacture cookies, sodas, or other products from those processed leaves – but no such authorized laboratory exists here.

The coca leaf contains more than a dozen alkaloids, only one of which is extracted to produce cocaine. While debate is robust over how much cocaine dried coca leaf contains, reliable scientific research is sparse. Therein lies another challenge to Bolivian export: nutritional analysis, studies on alkaloids and human digestion, and assessment of the quantity of the cocaine alkaloid present in commercial products all need to be undertaken.

Even considering the obstacles, its clear that many of these small business owners are determined to find a way forward – and in the Morales government they have found an ally.