Bolivia Wants to Trademark the Word “Coca”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I know absolutely nothing about intellectual property, but Bolivia’s current efforts to trademark “coca” strike me as rather odd:

Companies such as Coca-Cola Co. could be barred from using the word “coca” in their brand names under a measure endorsed by a panel that is helping rewrite the Bolivian constitution.

The coca committee of the assembly that is overhauling the constitution has accepted a proposal by coca leaf farmers introducing language that bans foreign companies from “using the name of the sacred leaf in their products.”

Coca is the main ingredient of cocaine, but Bolivians have used it for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger pangs and altitude sickness. Bolivian indigenous groups also use the leaves in religious ceremonies.

The bid to recognize coca as something inherently Bolivian is similar to measures that restrict the use of names such as champagne, tequila, feta and parmesan outside of certain regions.

Margarita Teran, head of the coca committee, told daily newspaper La Razon she was dismayed that Coke can sell soft drinks worldwide without restrictions while Bolivia is barred from exporting products made with coca.

A 1961 United Nations convention bans the international trade of products made with coca and places it in the same category as opium and cannabis.

President Evo Morales is carrying out an international campaign to convince the UN to allow Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, to export products made with coca like toothpastes, face creams and herbal teas.

Teran’s comment is ironic, given the great lengths to which Coca-Cola goes to conceal the fact that the soda’s original formula contained cocaine:

Coke was originally formulated in 1886 by one John Styth Pemberton, an Atlanta druggist and former Confederate army officer. Among other things it contained (and presumably still contains) three parts coca leaves to one part cola nut.

The new soft drink was one of many concoctions in that era containing cocaine, which was being touted as a benign substitute for alcohol. Coke, in fact, was promoted as a patent medicine, which would “cure all nervous afflictions–Sick Headache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, Etc….”

How much cocaine Coke actually contained and how much kick you got from it is not known (a Coke spokesman today says the amount was “trivial”). But for years Southerners called the stuff “dope” or “a shot in the arm,” while soda fountains were called “hop joints” and Coke delivery trucks “dope wagons.”

In the 1890s, however, public sentiment began to turn against cocaine, which among other things was believed to be a cause of racial violence by drug-crazed blacks. In 1903 the New York Tribune published an article linking cocaine with black crime and calling for legal action against Coca-Cola.

Shortly thereafter Coke quietly switched from fresh to “spent” coca leaves (i.e., what’s left over after the cocaine has been removed). It also stopped advertising Coke as a cure for what ails you and instead promoted it simply as a refreshing beverage.

Humor aside, the inability of countries like Bolivia and Colombia to export products made from coca leaves — such as tea, toothpaste, and liquor — is a serious problem. The ban deprives coca-leaf growers of a valuable source of legitimate income, as indicated by the success of coca-leaf products sold on domestic markets. Here’s a snippet of a BBC story on how the Nasa Indians are selling such products — including a coca-based soda that “competes” with Coca-Cola — in Colombia:

On a recent Sunday in a Bogota street market, natural foods specialist Omar Bernal extolled the benefits of the coca tea, cookies and ointments stacked on the table before him.

He had not yet received the coca wine and cola, but he did also offer a marijuana-based ointment.

The signs on the table advertised that the products could treat digestive problems, migraines, skin blemishes, high cholesterol and arthritis and fatigue.

“They’re selling extraordinarily, because coca is both a food and a medicine,” he said.


The coca leaf treatments are affordable, too. A box of 20 tea bags costs 4,000 pesos, or less than US$2, while a bag of coca cookies costs about 2,500 pesos.

A steady stream of customers stopped by the stand.

While some said they simply liked the coca flavour, others credited coca products with impressive cures.

Retired military officer Gonzalo Mesa said that for the last six months his son, an epileptic, had drunk a cup of coca tea with honey every night before bed.

“It’s produced excellent results” in preventing seizures, Mesa said.

For others, such as government employee Jose Valerio Lopez, the coca leaf products represent pride of tradition.

“Coca has been turned into something criminal,” he said. “But our ancestors used it to treat many ailments.”

Mr Bernal said that on a good Sunday, he sold about $200 worth of the products, which are also being sold through natural food stores and supermarkets in Colombia’s big cities.

The Nasa sell about US$1,300 worth of coca products per month.

Unlike cocaine, coca-leaf products are not addictive and produce at most a mild high. Banning their export, therefore, doesn’t seem to make much sense — especially given that it simply drives coca-leaf growers into the arms of narcotraffickers.

One Response

  1. I’m uncertain to the extent that banning the trade of cocaine makes sense, much less that of the less intoxicating derivatives of the plant.

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