(above) Freddy Pari, 40, picks coca seeds to sell on a street market in the village of La Asunta, some 200 km (124 miles) east of Bolivian capital La Paz. (AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)
Bolivia Markets Coca Toothpaste As Way To Fight Drug Trade
If chewing it and having it infused in beer wasn't enough, Bolivians can also start and end their day with a nice coca buzz thanks to toothpaste made with the potent plant.
Coca – the base product in the manufacture of cocaine – has been used for centuries throughout the Andes as a mild stimulant and cure for altitude sickness as well as arthritis. Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself the former head of the country's coca growers union, has been an adamant supporter of the plant and pushed for the diversification of the product into other home products ranging from toothpaste to tea to energy drinks.
Bolivian officials also claim that the spread of the plant into the general consumer market is part of the country's drug-fighting strategy, even as international laws strongly oppose the export of cocaine.
"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," said Dionisio Nuñez, Bolivia's vice minister of coca, according to the Christian Science Monitor "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."
The ubiquitous use of coca in Bolivia has become a point of contention between the government of President Evo Morales and the United States, who wants to eliminate the leaf as part of its anti-drug effort in the region.
Coca growers such as Morales point out that indigenous communities have for centuries chewed coca to fight off the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue and use it in religious rituals.
A 1975 Harvard University study also found the leaves to have a surprisingly high nutritional value, rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A, B2 and E. However, it said the "toxic alkaloids" comprising 0.25 to 2.25 percent of the plant "could make the nutritious coca leaf undesirable as a source of nutrients."
U.S. counterdrug officials insist most of Bolivia's coca crop goes to cocaine production and say the country has also become a haven for Colombian drug traffickers who also use Bolivia to refine coca paste imported from Peru.
Bolivia has the world's third-largest coca crop after Peru and Colombia, with more than 67,000 acres (27,000 hectares) under cultivation, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Unlike Colombia, however, most of its cocaine heads not to the United States but to Brazil, Argentina and Europe.