Bolivian lawmakers pass bill to nearly double legal coca area

A man spreads coca leaves on the ground to be sun dried outside a church in President Evo Morales' hometown of Villa 14 de Septiembre in the Chapare region in Cochabamba October 11, 2014. REUTERS/David Mercado/File Photo

LA PAZ (Reuters) - Bolivia’s Senate on Friday passed a bill to nearly double the amount of land that can legally be planted with coca, bringing the South American nation’s expected production to 30,000 tonnes of leaves.

The bill, which was approved by the Andean nation’s lower house on Thursday, will allow farmers to plant up to 22,000 hectares with coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, compared to 12,000 hectares under a previous law enacted in 1988.

Leftist President Evo Morales, a former coca grower, is expected to sign the bill into law.

People in the Andes have for centuries chewed coca leaves to ward off the effects of high altitude. Coca is also brewed into tea and considered sacred by many indigenous people, including Morales.

“The important thing has been to stop demonizing the coca leaf, to decriminalize it, to release it,” Bolivian Senate President Alberto Gonzales said. “We are talking about a noble, sacred leaf that did not deserve to be stigmatized in the way it was for almost 30 years.”

Bolivia needs some 25,000 tonnes of coca for traditional and religious rituals, said Cesar Cocarico, the minister of rural development and land. He said some 6,000 tonnes could be industrialized and legally exported to countries including Ecuador and Argentina.

Opposition lawmaker Wilson Santamaria said it was not necessary to increase the area planted for coca, noting that studies showed 14,000 hectares was sufficient to meet the demand for legal and cultural usage.

Coca farmers who would like to abolish limits on coca planting altogether threw rocks in protests in La Paz earlier this week, causing the police to release tear gas.

Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Paul Simao