Colombia war on drugs to supermarket, targeting natural coca products 5-10-07

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 US$600 million (euro440 million) a year in
U.S. aid, Uribe has strengthened Colombia's anti-narcotics police,
seized record tons of cocaine and extradited 520 drug trafficking
suspects to U.S. jails.

But until recently, his hardline government had not gone after
natural coca products made by Indians, acknowledging that millions of
peasants have chewed calcium-rich coca for thousands of years to
stave off hunger and as a remedy for ailments from altitude sickness
to stomach aches.

Uribe's presidential Web site even promoted natural coca products as
a rare commercial enterprise for poor Indian communities, and the
federal food-safety agency provided quality-control advice to the
manufacturers of coca tea, cookies, shampoo and other consumer goods.

That suddenly changed in February, when Uribe's administration
started banning the sale of coca products outside the reservations
where Indians have a constitutional right to grow the hearty plant.
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.

What prompted the switch?

For one, the success of Coca Sek, an energy drink made by the Nasa
Indian tribe.

The carbonated drink made with coca, which looks like apple cider and
tastes vaguely like ginger ale, was becoming a trendy alternative to
Coca-Cola among Colombia's urban youth. The logo on the can even
mimicked the popular U.S. soft drink's curvy script.

Newspapers around the world ran David-and-Goliath stories about the
challenge by an unknown Indian tribe to the U.S. soda behemoth.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. responded with a
trademark-infringement suit that Colombian authorities quickly

Word also reached Austria, where the International Narcotics Control
Board enforces a 1961 treaty that requires the “uprooting of all
coca bushes which grow wild” and bans the distribution of products
with even trace amounts of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine.

The board sent Colombia's foreign minister a letter asking how the
“refreshing drink made from coca and produced by an Indian
community” didn't violate the treaty - and months later, the food
safety agency quietly imposed the ban.

The Nasas cried foul, suspecting behind-the-scenes pressure from Coca-Cola.

Colombia's food safety agency, the narcotics control board and
Coca-Cola Co. all denied that. Agency lawyer Carolina Contreras says
it was the control board's letter that prompted the ban, and the
control board says it had no communication from Coca-Cola before
sending it.

But the Indians remain suspicious. While they've appealed the ban,
their US$15,000-a-month (euro11,000-a-month) income from the sale of
Coca Sek and other coca products is suffering, says David Curtidor, a
Nasa in charge of the company that produces the drink.

“Why don't they also ban Coca-Cola?” he said, claiming: “It's also
made of coca leaves.”

Dana Bolden, a spokesman at Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters, would
neither confirm nor deny that a coca extract is part of the secret
recipe. He repeated the company's longstanding refusal to reveal any
elements of the Coca-Cola formula.

A loophole in the 1961 treaty allows coca leaves to be sold
internationally if they are later distilled of their cocaine alkaloid
to produce a “flavoring agent.” That's what Northfield, Ill.-based
Stepan Co. does under a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration license.

The Stepan Co., according to its Web site, is a “a global
manufacturer of specialty and intermediate chemicals used in consumer
products and industrial application.” The company didn't respond to
repeated requests to confirm that Coca-Cola is a client.

Stepan is the only U.S. firm currently importing coca, a DEA
spokeswoman told The Associated Press. It buys about 55 tons of
Peruvian coca leaves each year, said Jimmy Salcedo, commercial
manager for Peru's state-owned National Coca Company, Enaco.

Many Indians in the Andes - where coca is revered as a sacred plant
and a matter of national pride in several countries - are angry that
the United States is importing coca leaves legally while their own
coca products are banned.

“The coca leaf is legal for Coca-Cola and illegal for medicinal
purposes in our country and in the whole world,” Bolivian President
Evo Morales told the U.N. General Assembly last year.