Ban on coca products in Colombia follows coca-cola compaints 5-7-07

By SERGIO DE LEON
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - President Alvaro Uribe is taking the war on
drugs to the supermarket, prohibiting the sale of products made from
the coca plant.

With the help of more than $600 million a year in U.S. aid, Uribe has
strengthened the country's anti-narcotic police, seized record tons
of cocaine and extradited some 520 drug trafficking suspects to U.S.
jails.

Now his hardline policies are catching up with the hearty plant used
to make cocaine- banning the sale of coca products that until
recently the U.S.-allied government actively promoted as a rare
commercial enterprise for impoverished Indians.

The prohibition heeds an otherwise much-ignored clause of a 1961
international narcotics control treaty that requires the “uprooting
of all coca bushes which grow wild” and proscribes the distribution
of products with even trace amounts of coca. It also follows a
trademark complaint by the Coca-Cola Co.

And it runs counter to other Andean presidents' vocal promotion of
coca products.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez backs Bolivia's Evo Morales' campaign to
decriminalize coca products globally, underwriting two Bolivian
plants that will make coca tea, flour and even toothpaste. Peru's
Alan Garcia also genuflects to coca's cultural heft. He's suggested
tossing the leaf into salads.

Millions of peasants across the Andes chew calcium-rich coca daily to
stave off hunger and as a folk treatment for ailments as diverse as
altitude sickness and stomach aches.

But as of February, Colombia's Invima food-safety agency no longer
permits Indians to sell outside their reservations products made from
coca, which they grow legally under indigenous autonomy provisions of
the country's 1991 constitution. (Outside the reserves, growing coca
is a criminal offense punishable by up to 14 years in jail.)

And though it's still possible to find coca products at boutique
markets and health food stores, inspectors have begun to forcibly
remove them from supermarket shelves.

The policy reversal follows the promotion by the Nasa tribe of its
Coca Sek energy drink as an indigenous alternative to U.S.-made Coke.

A hit with urban Colombian youth, the elixir mimicked the popular
soft drink's curvy script in its logo. Foreign correspondents filed
dispatches about it.

 

In mid-2006, the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board
sent Colombia's foreign minister a letter asking whether the
“refreshing drink made from coca and produced by an Indian
community” didn't violate that 1961 treaty.

The Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., meanwhile, filed a complaint
alleging that Coca Sek, which translates as the “sun's coca,”
infringed on its trademark.

In October, Colombia's trademark office sided with the Nasa Indians,
dismissing the complaint. Four months later, Invima quietly
instituted the coca product sales ban.

“They lose their fight in October and then in February the
government decides to prohibit Coca Sek,” said David Curtidor, a
Nasa in charge of the company that produces the drink.

Uribe's office wouldn't comment on what prompted its decision to
impose the ban.

But the Indians, for whom coca is sacred, blame Coca-Cola Co. They
sued to overturn the ban, lost in a lower court and are now appealing.

Meanwhile, the community's $15,000-a-month income from the sale of
Coca Sek and other coca products is suffering, says Curtidor. “Why
don't they also ban Coca-Cola? It's also made of coca leaves,” he
complained.

Coca-Cola spokesman Rafael Fernandez Quiros would neither confirm nor
deny that a cocaine-free coca extract is part of Coca Cola's secret
recipe, as is widely believed. And he denied allegations his company
intervened on behalf of the ban.

An Invima lawyer, Carolina Contreras, also denied Coca-Cola's alleged
role. She cited the International Narcotics Control Board's letter as
a determining factor.

Notwithstanding, a loophole in the 1961 treaty cited by the letter
allows coca leaves to be sold internationally if later distilled of
their cocaine alkaloid to produce a “flavoring agent.”

That's what Northfield, Illinois-based Stepan Co. does, under license
of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, though it wouldn't
respond to repeated requests to confirm that it produces coca extract
for Coca-Cola.

Stepan is the only U.S. firm currently importing coca, a DEA
spokeswoman told The Associated Press. It buys about 50 metric tons
of Peruvian coca leaves each year, Jimmy Salcedo, commercial manager
for Peru's state-owned National Coca Company, Enaco, told the AP.

The Nasa Indians aren't the only ones calling the loophole hypocritical.

Evo Morales, longtime president of Bolivia's largest coca growers'
union, objected before the U.N. General Assembly last year that “the
coca leaf is legal for Coca Cola and illegal for medicinal purposes
in our country and in the whole world.”

Camilo Uribe, a Colombian doctor and one of 13 members of the
International Narcotics Control Board, defends the ban.

“How do I assure a container full of little coca tea bags won't end
up in the illegal market and be used to make cocaine?” he asks.

It's a question that may sound farfetched - more than 800 kilograms
(1,760 pounds) of coca leaves are required to make a single kilogram
of cocaine hydrochloride, narcotics police say.

That's a truckload of tea.

 

 

 

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