Bolivia Pushes Coca-Edibles to the Masses

By Tony O'Neill 05/09/13

President Evo Morales tries to prove the infamous plant can be put to wholesome use.

Why is nobody cuckoo for coca-snacks?
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Bolivia's President Evo Morales has worked hard to persuade the world that he has no tolerance for cocaine, but that the country's thousands of acres of coca plants can be put to more wholesome (and delicious) use. Since becoming president seven years ago, Morales has pushed an array of coca-based food products to the Bolivian consumer—from baked coca treats to candies, liquors and soft drinks. But bringing mainstream acceptance to coca production has been no easy feat—in part, because of the unappetizing taste. "Coca Colla" was a coca-based energy drink that flopped soon after its launch in 2010 (despite being closer to the original Coca Cola, which actually contained cocaine). "At first, it wasn't very accepted because of its slightly bitter flavor," said the drink's creator Victor Ledezma, "But I'm improving the formula and thinking of returning to the market." "Cheese flavored coca-puff treats" produced by the Ebococa factory also didn't fare well, and were eventually given away to schoolchildren in the Chapare valley. Eliseo Zeballos, the coca union leader in charge of the Ebococa factory, blamed the products' main ingredient for its downfall. "It doesn't help putting in much coca," he said.

Bolivia's coca crop, which is the third largest in the world beside Columbia and Peru, is licensed and regulated by the government. US counter drug officials have criticized this unorthodox approach, insisting that most coca is turned into cocaine, and that the country has become a haven for Colombian drug traffickers who also use Bolivia to refine coca paste imported from Peru. But Morales, a regular partaker of the coca leaf himself, has continually defended the plant, pointing out that indigenous communities have for centuries chewed coca leaves to fight off the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue. Coca tea remains highly popular in Bolivia and its use is on the upswing in other Latin American countries as well. "I have seen coca tea in Ecuador, in Venezuela," said Morales a month ago. "Coca tea is arriving in South Africa from Peru." But his attempts to market other coca-based products continue to fail. "We've had difficulty maintaining coca products in the market," said Javier Valda, director of a government office that organizes indigenous economies. "There's no distribution or mass promotion. People don't easily accept environmental products and they prefer hamburgers, coffee."

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.