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Why Bolivia and Colombia want coca leaf, cocaine's main ingredient, legalized

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Two of the world's biggest cocaine suppliers are about to call for legalization of the main ingredient in cocaine, the coca leaf. Bolivia and Colombia are expected to make that pitch today at a U.N. meeting in Europe. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

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CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Every Jan. 11, Bolivia celebrates Acullico, coca leaf day.

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KAHN: On the government's Facebook page, this year's celebration highlighted leaf farmers and Indigenous leaders, many holding signs reading, coca is not cocaine and praising its uses and market potential. John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group WOLA, agrees.

JOHN WALSH: Coca should not be in the same list as cocaine.

KAHN: The list contains prohibited substances recognized by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs and controlled worldwide. Walsh says, apart from its illicit use to make cocaine, coca has healthy uses in teas and medicines.

WALSH: Also related to - identified with culture and cultural rights and Indigenous rights. And it's a denial of those rights and cultures to classify it as something that needs to be abolished.

KAHN: Colombia and Bolivia must first ask the U.N.'s World Health Organization to study coca's nonnarcotic benefits - a lengthy process. Colombia's leftist president, Gustavo Petro, backs the campaign. He's a staunch opponent of the U.S.-backed war on drugs and often talks about its harm on poor coca farmers, like in this speech to the U.N. General Assembly last year.

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PRESIDENT GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He decried the demonization of subsistence coca farmers who, he claims, have few crop options. Both Bolivia and Colombia, however, have said little about what they plan to propose this week, disappointing some activists. Neither government returned NPR's calls requesting comment. Ana Maria Rueda of the Peace Ideas Foundation in Bogota says expectations have been high to see Petro's rhetoric and action at the high-profile international drug forum.

ANA MARIA RUEDA: So he will miss the opportunity to set up the stage, to be clear on his position. He will have others, but this was the first.

KAHN: Coca cultivation reached record highs last year. A senior State Department official told NPR that, quote, "the U.S. would have concerns about any action at the U.N. that might facilitate increased production and trafficking of cocaine."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.