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A brew of ancient coca is Bolivia’s buzzy new beer. But it’s unclear if the world will buy in

TRINIDAD PAMPA, Bolivia — If it were anywhere else in South America, the nondescript house with buckets of coca leaves soaking in liquid could be mistaken for a clandestine cocaine lab.

But this is La Paz, Bolivia, and the fruity aroma of coca steeping in barrels signals that you’ve arrived at the government-authorized El Viejo Roble distillery, which for years has been making liquor from coca leaves and is now gearing up to launch a new coca-infused beer.

It remains questionable whether Bolivia can persuade the world to accept the hardy green leaf best known beyond its borders as the main ingredient of cocaine. But a recent landmark decision by the World Health Organization to study coca’s non-narcotic benefits has rekindled the old hopes of Bolivian farmers, makers and sellers.

“Exporting is a desire that my people and I have had since I was a child,” said Lizzette Torrez, leader of one of Bolivia’s main coca-grower unions.

Within Bolivia, the world’s third-biggest producer of the coca leaf, and of cocaine, the ancient leaf has inspired spiritual rituals among Indigenous communities for generations — and more recently, among the well-heeled, a deluge of coca-related products, including El Viejo Roble’s new star $2 brew.

“Beer can be bitter, but with the sweet touch that we give it with coca makes it is more palatable,” manager Adrián Álvarez said from the distillery, where workers bottled the brew that will soon join El Viejo Roble’s coca-flavored vodka and rum, old classics they sell to the government and visitors.

The reach of Álvarez’s beverages, along with other coca-infused products, remains limited to artisanal fairs in Bolivia and Peru, countries where the leaf is legal — so as long as it is not used to make cocaine. As for the rest of the world, a United Nations convention classifies coca leaf as a narcotic and imposes a blanket prohibition on drugs.

Bolivia’s government is reviving its decadeslong push not only to destigmatize the plant and make it legal to export but also to create a global market for coca liquor, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, baking flour and more. Its efforts received a major boost last fall when WHO announced it would launch a scientific review of the coca leaf, the first step in a lengthy process to decriminalize the leaf worldwide.

“The procedures have been initiated for the first time in history,” Juan Carlos Alurralde, general secretary of Bolivia’s vice presidency, told the AP. “The leaf will be seriously investigated.”

The last time that WHO undertook a study of the coca leaf was in 1992, but detailed findings were never made pubic.

Officials from Colombia and Bolivia unveiled the research proposal alongside WHO representatives in Vienna earlier this spring. They have until October, when a committee meeting on the study will kick off in Geneva, to submit research about coca’s medicinal and nutritional properties.

The study will also consider Bolivia’s efforts to commercialize coca, determining the maximum amount of the cocaine alkaloid that coca products could contain on the world market.

“Experts have to evaluate whether it results in dependency,” Alurralde said.

Nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of La Paz, where the high-altitude bush paints the hills of Trinidad Pampa green, coca growers, known as “cocaleros,” welcomed news of the WHO review. For them, chewing coca leaves is a daily habit likened to drinking coffee.

“It helps me to harvest without fatigue and support my family,” said farmer Juan de Dios Cocarico, stuffing a wad of coca into his mouth as he ripped leaves off the stalk.

Global decriminalization, cocaleros say, would bring more export revenues as an economic crisis looms due to the rapid depletion of Bolivia’s foreign-exchange reserves.

“This is a coca-growing town that lives off coca,” said Frido Duran, a leader of coca growers in Yungas, a region northeast of La Paz. “We are convinced that this (WHO) study will vindicate all that our grandparents taught us.”

Across Bolivia, the leaf sustains 70,000 cocaleros and generates some $279 million each year as the farmers sell the foliage in bulk to be chewed as a mild stimulant, incorporated into religious ceremonies or transformed into goods marketed as a modern-day miracle cure that relieves altitude sickness, boosts stamina and dulls hunger.

For Bolivia, cocaleros are largely subsistence farmers farmers who say they have few viable crop options.

For the United States and other Western countries that long have blocked Bolivia’s attempts to decriminalize the leaf, cocaleros are maligned as the cause of many of the world’s drug problems.

“With each iteration of U.S. policy the coca cultivators of Bolivia were forced into whatever policy guideline was good for U.S. bureaucracy,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “During the war on drugs, coca farmers were drug traffickers, then narco-terrorists.”

Bolivia’s focus on removing the leaf from the U.N. blacklist stems from its skepticism about coca-eradication schemes, which authorities say have brought little more than violence since then-U.S. President Richard Nixon launched his “war on drugs ” in 1971.

Unable to force cocaleros to sacrifice their meager livelihoods by planting substitute crops, Bolivian authorities started licensing farmers to grow coca instead.

In requesting the study of the coca plant at the U.N., President Luis Arce urged nations to seize “a new opportunity to correct this grave historical error.”

Washington said it was open to WHO’s study, but signaled it wasn’t supporting legalization.

A legal coca leaf market, said the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, doesn’t keep illegal ones from sprouting up. In a statement responding to questions from The Associated Press, the agency cited U.S. government figures showing that as coca cultivation in Bolivia doubled from 2006 to 2021, illicit cocaine production also surged by 175%.

As of 2022, the U.N. said Bolivia had 29,900 hectares (115 square miles) of coca crop, of which only 22,000 were legal.

Former President Evo Morales, a longtime leader of coca growers’ unions who famously threw the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency out of Bolivia in 2009, used his office to develop Bolivia’s state-regulated coca market and and lobby the U.N. to lift its ban.

The leftist icon clinched a diplomatic victory in 2013 when the U.N. agreed to let Bolivia rejoin its global narcotic drug treaty with a carve-out for traditional uses of coca leaves.

But Morales’ push for a WHO study ended when violent protests rocked Bolivia in 2019, leading to his resignation and exile after 14 years in power.

___

Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.

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