LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — President Evo Morales on Wednesday signed into law a bill that nearly doubles the amount of land in Bolivia that can be legally planted with coca plants.
Morales returned home Tuesday night after receiving treatment in Cuba for a nodule in his vocal chords and he'll need to return to the island in April for a brief operation. He had to cancel previous speaking events after losing his voice to a sore throat, but he spoke for nearly an hour Wednesday in favor of the law.
The change allows Bolivian farmers to plant up to 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) in coca, up from 12,000 (29,000) under previous legislation.
Bolivia's first indigenous president is a former coca farmer who rose to power supporting legalization of the plant, which can be used to make cocaine but also has traditional uses in the Andes. When chewed, coca leaves act as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. It is also used to make tea to fight altitude sickness.
Morales, a leftist leader who has allied with Venezuela's socialist government, expelled the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2008, accusing them of inciting the opposition.
"Coca beat the United States," Morales said during the public event Wednesday as some coca farmers listened to his speech chewing on coca leaves. "The United States just said that Bolivia and Venezuela failed in a demonstrable way in the war against drugs. But the only thing that can be demonstrated is that neither Bolivia nor Venezuela can submit" to the United States.
Morales had promised a law to expand coca acreage since he took office in 2006, but the idea provoked infighting among coca growers unions. Some rejected the increase in Bolivia's central Chapare region, saying the coca there was not good for traditional consumption and would likely be used to produce cocaine.
Bolivia is a major cocaine transit and processing nation. Opposition lawmakers said they would sue to block the law, calling it unconstitutional because it breaches international treaties. They said it would turn the Andean nation into a free-for-all for drug dealers.