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January 18-24, 2006

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I'd Like to Buy the World a Coca

By Stett Holbrook

The election of a leftist coca farmer to the presidency of Bolivia last month is the latest sign that Latin America is rejecting the neoliberal economic policies that have held sway in the region and is turning sharply to the left. While the White House fears president-elect Evo Morales will create a playground in Bolivia for drug lords and Fidel Castro-loving communists, I see an opportunity for both countries.

First, a little background. Morales is the former leader of Bolivia's cocaleros, indigenous campesinos who grow coca in the country's highlands. One of his key campaign promises is to legalize coca production for traditional uses and block U.S. eradication efforts. He says he will fight cocaine production and will hold a referendum in coca-growing regions to ask how coca growing should be controlled.

It's been said that the coca-growing countries of South America don't have a cocaine problem, the United States does. For centuries before coca leaf was processed into nose candy, Andean peasants chewed the leaves to combat hunger and fatigue, and it's still part of their daily lives. The cocaine trade, and the violence it breeds, is driven by insatiable demand for cocaine in the United States.

In addition to the aerial spraying of coca, the United States has been pushing crop substitution programs in the Andean countries of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, but they've largely been a failure. Growing fruit and vegetables fetches far less than growing coca, and many campesinos are reluctant to give up coca production. And in Colombia, efforts to get farmers to switch from growing coca to roses have hurt California flower growers because the South American farmers can produce their crops for far less than what it costs in this country.

Meanwhile, the Paez Indians of southwestern Colombia have hit on an idea that might work for neighboring Bolivia as well. According to a report in the U.K. Guardian, the indigenous Colombians are launching a fizzy, coca-leaf-based product called Coca Sek.

"People associate coca with cocaine. We wanted to convince people that coca is not the same as the drug and allow indigenous people to be proud of the leaf," David Curtido told the Guardian. Curtido leads the beverage project.

"When we made the first taste tests [of the soft drink] among the community we didn't tell people what was in the bottle. People tasted it and they were fascinated. They immediately recognized it as coca and appreciated that we are giving added value to their much-reviled plant," Curtido said.

The drink is cider-colored and has a tealike aroma that's described as tasting like a cross between lemonade and ginger ale.

Here's my idea. Why not legalize the sale of a coca leaf-based drink in the United States? The U.S. market for energy drinks like Red Bull and Full Throttle is estimated at $650 million. A legal, coca-based drink like Coca Sek would give you real bang for your buck and would be sure to be a hit among the Red Bull-swilling masses. Not only could they get jacked on a product based on natural ingredients, they could help the impoverished masses of the Andes by giving them a good price for their coca, thereby taking the leaves away from the drug lords. The drink would also give a break to U.S. flower growers hurt by crop substitution programs. I'd drink to that.

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