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Bolivia's President Suggested the Pope Try Coca

During Evo Morales' visit to the vatican he gave Pope Francis three books about the coca leaf.
Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/EPA

Bolivia's president Evo Morales went to the Vatican on Friday and told Pope Francis that he should follow his example and consume coca leaf for his health.

"I'm taking it and it does me good," he told the pontiff during a brief encounter prior to the Vatican City meeting on economic and social issues, a sort of Vatican think tank. "I recommend you do it so that you're strong for the rest of your life."


Morales then gave him three books in Spanish on the benefits of the coca leaf, which is the base ingredient for processed cocaine. The books focus on diet, and biodiversity. One is called Coca Against Obesity.

Morales also gave the pope a letter signed by two of Bolivia's workers unions, in which they argue against statements against coca cultivation made by local catholic leaders.

Coca leaves are traditionally consumed by locals in the Andean region for religious and medicinal purposes, particularly to reduce the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue. While coca leaf was declared illegal in 1961 by the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Bolivia was allowed to cultivate a limited amount of the crop for the domestic market.

Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru dominate the production of illicit coca and processed cocaine, although Bolivia has seen a constant decrease in cultivation said to have been achieved through smart negotiations with growers rather than forced eradication.

When Pope Francis visited Bolivia last year, he told reporters he wanted to chew coca in order to cope with the thin air in the capital, La Paz, that lies 12,000ft above sea level. After his visit, however, he said he had not actually tried it.

Morales also raised eyebrows on that occasion with his choice of a gift when he presented the pope with a crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Despite photographs of the Pope looking a little shocked, Francis later dismissed rumors of displeasure.

On his home ground, Pope Francis gave Morales a collection of his interviews, as well as a copy of his recent pronouncements on the family. He also presented the Bolivian president with a locket of Saint Martin de Tours, known as the patron for the poor.

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Related: How Bolivia Got Smart and Convinced Poor Farmers to Grow Less Coca