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Bolivia hopes for buzz with coca campaign

By Peter Wilkinson, CNN
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Bolivia's coca energy drink
  • Bolivia urges countries to back campaign to have coca taken off U.N. list of banned drugs
  • Coca is widely used in Andes as a mild stimulant in drinks and herbal medicine
  • Advocates say leaves, which contain small amounts of cocaine, have several benefits
  • U.S. expected to oppose moves to have coca legalized
  • Bolivia
  • Cocaine

(CNN) -- For almost half a century the chewing of coca leaves, a practice dating back thousands of years, has been banned internationally. Now, Bolivia is urging countries to back a campaign to have coca removed from a United Nations list of banned drugs.

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.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former union leader for coca growers, 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.

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 the chewing of coca leaves removed from the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs.

In an attempt to win over doubters, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is on a European tour this week, urging leaders there not to block its campaign. If no objections are raised by January 31, the change will take place automatically, according to the WOLA.

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told Choquehuanca on Tuesday that Spain understands Bolivian's petition and has shown its interest to mediate on this issue so an agreement could be reached, according to EFE.

If the change in the status does take place it could mean more coca products being sold around the world as well as energy drinks, flour and even toothpaste derived from the leaves.

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, and another was launched on Tuesday.

The new product, called "Coca Brynco," was launched at an official ceremony in Bolivia's capital La Paz, emphasizing support from Morales's government for the venture, Agence France-Presse reported.

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

CNN's Claudia Rebaza contributed to this report.