‘The Holy Father Has Asked to Chew Coca’

Hopefully the Vatican doesn’t mandate workplace drug testing.

Pope Francis waves at the airport in Quito before his departure for Bolivia, on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds.     AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BERNETTI        (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves at the airport in Quito before his departure for Bolivia, on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BERNETTI (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis waves at the airport in Quito before his departure for Bolivia, on July 8, 2015. Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, heads Wednesday to Bolivia on the second leg of a three-nation tour of the continent's poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN BERNETTI (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Hopefully the Vatican doesn’t mandate workplace drug testing.

Bolivia's culture minister, Marko Machicao, said that Pope Francis “has asked to chew coca” during a visit to the Latin American country, the second stop on an eight-day tour of the region, NPR reported on Wednesday morning.

Francis may suffer shortness of breath at high altitudes, amplified by a procedure to remove part of one lung after a childhood infection. The airport where he will land is more than 13,000 feet above sea level, and locals often use coca, a mild stimulant in its unprocessed form, to alleviate symptoms. But the plant, famous around the world because it is central to the production of cocaine, is more than just an herbal remedy in Bolivia. The United States has targeted production there, arguing that much of the crop flows over the Colombian border to fuel the international cocaine trade. But for Bolivians, the plant is part of a long agricultural tradition -- and, for many members of the country’s indigenous majority, even sacred -- and it is also an important source of income for a country that is among the poorest in the region.

Hopefully the Vatican doesn’t mandate workplace drug testing.

Bolivia’s culture minister, Marko Machicao, said that Pope Francis “has asked to chew coca” during a visit to the Latin American country, the second stop on an eight-day tour of the region, NPR reported on Wednesday morning.

Francis may suffer shortness of breath at high altitudes, amplified by a procedure to remove part of one lung after a childhood infection. The airport where he will land is more than 13,000 feet above sea level, and locals often use coca, a mild stimulant in its unprocessed form, to alleviate symptoms. But the plant, famous around the world because it is central to the production of cocaine, is more than just an herbal remedy in Bolivia. The United States has targeted production there, arguing that much of the crop flows over the Colombian border to fuel the international cocaine trade. But for Bolivians, the plant is part of a long agricultural tradition — and, for many members of the country’s indigenous majority, even sacred — and it is also an important source of income for a country that is among the poorest in the region.

The 1961 U.N. convention on narcotic drugs declared the plant illegal. But Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former coca grower, held up a fistful of coca leaves during a U.N. meeting on narcotics and oversaw changes to the Bolivian constitution enshrining coca as “cultural patrimony,” a “renewable natural resource,” and “not a narcotic.” In 2008, he kicked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency out of the country. The U.S. State Department said that Bolivia’s coca policy “will lead to a greater supply of cocaine,” but Morales argued that Washington should focus on reducing demand for the drug within the United States.

If Francis chews coca leaves during the visit — “The pope will do what he thinks is right,” chief Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in June — it will mark the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures meant to win over Morales, a fierce critic of the church who has replaced Catholic ceremonies with indigenous ones at state functions. He attended his swearing-in ceremony dressed as an Inca emperor. The charm offensive may be working: Morales has found common ground with the pope over their shared rhetorical focus on the poor. And Francis wouldn’t be the first pontiff to dabble with the plant: Pope John Paul sipped coca tea during a visit to Bolivia in 1988.

Lombadi said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the pontiff accepted coca during his visit because he “likes taking part in popular customs.” Hopefully, he also likes a mild buzz.

Photo credit: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Twitter: @bsoloway

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