Pope Francis to chew coca leaves during visit to Bolivia – minister

Reuters / Jaime Saldarriaga
Pope Francis has made an unexpected request for his upcoming trip to Bolivia – he wants to chew coca leaves, the natural source of cocaine, according to a government official. Bolivia says it will “await the Holy Father” with the "sacred" leaves.

Culture Minister Marko Machicao told state broadcasters that the Bolivian government “offered [the Pope] coca tea or something for the altitude” on his upcoming visit.

But the pontiff apparently has his sights on chewing coca leaves, which have been used by local people to ward off the effects of altitude for centuries. They are also believed to help with muscle pain and stave off hunger and thirst, and can be used for medicinal and food purposes.

"He has specifically requested that he wants to chew coca, so we will be awaiting the Holy Father with the sacred coca leaf," Machicao said.

The pope will also receive “complimentary cakes and products derived from the coca leaf” during his visit, according to a statement from Bolivia's Communications Ministry.

The pontiff isn't the first high-level visitor to be given a tasty treat involving coca leaves. Just last year, Bolivia gave UN chief Ban Ki-moon a 'coca cake' for his 70th birthday.

The use of coca leaves, the main ingredient in cocaine, is prohibited in much of the world. However, it is legal in Bolivia and other Andean nations.

Many in Bolivia, including President Evo Morales, defend the use of coca leaves and consider it a sacred plant.

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In 2013, the Bolivian government successfully petitioned the United Nations for special permission for coca growing and its lawful uses within its borders.

Morales supports a “social control” policy of the leaves, enforcing a cap of 2,500 square meters of cultivation per family.

Two decades ago, a World Health Organization report said there were “no negative health effects” from coca use in leaf form. Those findings were shelved, however, due to US pressure.

The pope is scheduled to arrive in Bolivia on July 8, as part of a Latin America tour. He will also visit Ecuador and Paraguay while speaking out in defense of the poor.