By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales defended Bolivians' right to chew coca leaves, the main ingredient of cocaine, on Monday, saying it was a tradition going back thousands of years and the world's No. 3 cocaine producer was working to fight drug trafficking.
The coca leaf was declared an illegal narcotic in the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, along with cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine and a host of chemical drugs.
Bolivia has withdrawn from the convention but hopes to re-accede with a reservation recognizing coca chewing.
Morales, a former coca leaf farmer, told a United National anti-drugs meeting in Vienna on Monday that chewing coca leaves was an "ancestral right" for Bolivians.
"We are not drug addicts when we consume the coca leaf. The coca leaf is not cocaine, we have to get rid of this misconception," he said, holding up a coca leaf during a speech that ended with applause from the hall.
"This is a millennia-old tradition in Bolivia and we would hope that you will understand that coca leaf producers are not drug dealers."
Bolivia, the biggest cocaine producer after Peru and Colombia, has been trying to promote coca's health benefits and develop legal uses for coca leaves.
Coca is the raw material for making cocaine but Bolivians have chewed the leaves for centuries as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.
Morales has asked the United Nations to decriminalize the practice.
"We would hope that those who are present in this room will recognize that consumption of the coca leaf ... is essentially for positive purposes and will support us," he told the meeting in comments translated from Spanish to English.
"We are very much aware of the damage that can be done by cocaine and we are working against drug trafficking ... but we want the recognition of these ancestral rights."
He showed participants at the meeting marmalade, tea and other products made with coca to back up his assertion that the leaf is not dangerous and can have beneficial uses.
Earlier, Yury Fedotov, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said illegal drugs represented a "trans-national threat of extraordinary proportions" as he opened the week-long Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in the Austrian capital. Progress on fighting the production of illegal drugs had been limited, he said.
"Have we achieved results? Yes, but only in some areas," Fedotov told participants in a speech.
"Over the last decade, coca cultivation has decreased by one third, opium poppy cultivation has also declined by 15 percent, while overall opium production is still increasing."
U.S. SEES BOLIVIA DRUGS FAILURE
Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said Bolivia had failed "demonstrably to make sufficient efforts to meet its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements".
"Taken as a whole, eradication and interdiction results have not been adequate to compete with the rising drug trends that have brought Bolivia back to high coca cultivation and cocaine production levels," it said.
Bolivia and the United States agreed late last year to patch up their differences and restore full diplomatic ties three years after the Andean nation's leftist president threw out the American ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
However, Bolivia said it would not let U.S. anti-drug agents return even as government officials work with Washington on a plan to fight the narcotics trade.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)