Thursday, March 08, 2007

Scientists seek coca's medical benefits

By DAN KEANE, Associated Press Writer Tue Mar 6, 6:54 PM ET
LA PAZ, Bolivia - Cuban scientists are studying the possible medicial benefits of the coca leaf, a Bolivian official said Tuesday, signaling a possible expansion of President Evo Morales' plans to develop more legal products from a plant that is the chief ingredient of cocaine.
Felix Barra, minister of coca and alternative development, told Bolivian radio the Cubans have visited growing areas and would later go to research centers "to examine the benefits of the coca leaf from a pharmaceutical perspective."
Bolivians have chewed coca as a mild stimulant for centuries, and coca tea is commonly served in offices here instead of coffee. But the small green leaves are also turned into cocaine, manufactured here and smuggled mostly to Brazil and Europe.
Since taking office in January, Morales, a former coca grower, has stepped up anti-cocaine enforcement while promoting the leaf's traditional role in Bolivian life. But his plans to expand the plant's use to include flour, liquor and even toothpaste have vexed U.S. officials bent on reducing coca production.
Cuba, an ally of Morales' leftist government, has built a pharmaceutical industry that exports to many countries. Cuban doctors also have conducted extensive research into alternative medicines due to a shortage of imported drugs caused in part by the U.S. trade embargo of the island.
Barra also said Bolivia would continue an eradication program that last year eliminated 12,400 acres of coca, with the goal of eventually reducing a crop now estimated at 65,500 acres to 49,400 acres by 2010.
Bolivian law restricts individual coca plots to about a third of an acre.
Venezuela has given Bolivia a loan to build two factories to produce coca tea and flour and offered to import whatever the factories produce.
But a 1961 U.N. convention bans international trade in the leaf in any form.
Peruvian state coca company Enaco produces tea for export to South Africa, which never signed the convention. And Enaco officials confirmed as recently as two years ago that the Coca-Cola Co. was still importing a cocaine-free extract exempt from the U.N. convention to flavor its soda. "We're also looking for financing to make soft drinks," Barra said. "We know that biggest soda maker uses coca."
Bolivia plans to argue for wider legal uses for coca when the U.N. convention is reviewed next year in Vienna.
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