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Pope Francis Wants to Chew On Some Coca Leaves in Bolivia

Because of Bolivia's high altitude, the pope reportedly requested that coca leaves be ready for him to chew on once he arrives today in La Paz.

by VICE News
Jul 8 2015, 5:50pm

Imagen por Dolores Ochoa/AP

Pope Francis is on his way to Bolivia, the second country on his current South American tour, and while there, he's expressed interest in trying coca leaf — the base ingredient for processed cocaine.

The pontiff was scheduled to arrive today in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, after two days in Ecuador. Because of Bolivia's high altitude — La Paz, at 11,942 feet above sea level, is the highest capital city in the world — locals traditionally chew on coca leaf or brew it as tea to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness.

In late June, Bolivia's culture minister told local news outlets that Pope Francis would be requesting coca leaf to chew upon his arrival.

While coca was declared illegal after the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Bolivia in 2011 withdrew from the convention system, but two years later re-acceded, with approval from member states, with an exception allowing the country to maintain a domestic coca market. Bolivian law permits citizens to grow and use coca for religious and medicinal purposes.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has generated headlines for revolutionary views on topics such as homosexuality, capitalism, and the church's internal affairs. However, his view on drug-use is considered rather traditional. He advocates against the legalization of marijuana, for example.

The papal visit to Bolivia is set to deal exclusively with religious matters, but locals in the landlocked country say they hope Pope Francis will express support for a long-standing national claim to create a maritime exit for Bolivia between Peru and Chile. In response, Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See Press Office, said he does not think the Pope will "get into politics" during his brief visit.

Due to his health, the Pope will only stay at La Paz one night. Afterwards, he is scheduled to travel to Santa Cruz, a Bolivian city located at a lower altitude. Bolivian authorities said they will present him with coca leaves along with a menu set to include quinoa and traditional Bolivian foods.

The relationship between Bolivia and the Vatican has experienced some distancing since the 2006 arrival of Evo Morales to the presidency, and the new constitution he introduced in 2009. In that document, Bolivia became an officially secular country, and Andean rituals replaced Catholic ones at official events.

The new constitution deleted any mentions of the Roman Catholic Church in its articles.

"There are some challenging issues in terms of Evo Morales taking on a quite combative role against the church, which he sees as a challenge to his authority," Clare Dixon, Latin American regional director for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, told the Associated Press.

The papal activities in Bolivia are set to finish on Friday, with the Pope's visit to Palmasola, the most violent penitentiary in the country. He is then expected to travel to Paraguay before returning to Vatican City.

Related: Pope Francis Says Those Who Deny Migrants Should Ask God for Forgiveness

The Associated Press contributed to this report.