Will Pope Francis Chew Coca Leaves During His Bolivia Trip?


Pope Francis may or may not chew on coca leaves – the raw ingredient that is used to make cocaine – during an upcoming trip to Bolivia. But the Argentinian pontiff is definitely keeping all of his options open.

The chief Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, said on Tuesday that the pope had not yet decided whether he would chew the leaves after Bolivia’s culture minister revealed this week that the pope had “specifically requested” that coca leaves be made available during his trip.

“The pope will do what he thinks is right,” Lombardi said.

That does not mean Francis – who opposes the legalisation of recreational drugs - is about to break drug laws in South America. Chewing coca leaves for medicinal purposes is legal in Bolivia, where the leaves have long been used as a remedy against altitude sickness. Nor would he be the first pope to turn to coca for relief: Pope John Paul drank coca tea on a visit to Bolivia in 1988. 

The pontiff will be visiting Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru from 6 to 12 July.

The question of ‘will he or won’t he’ came as the Vatican released details of thewhirlwind trip in the fall that will follow his upcoming American visit: a tour of Cuba and the US set for 19 to 28 September in which he will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and visit the World Trade Center memorial.

That visit is highly anticipated for two reasons. First, it will mark Francis’s first trip to Cuba since the pontiff played a key role in the helping restore relationsbetween the Caribbean island state and the US. Second, it will mark the culmination of another major diplomatic effort by Francis: trying to convince world leaders at the United Nations and sceptical Republican lawmakers to act on climate change in two high-profile speeches in New York and Washington.

The trip to the US will begin on 22 September, when Pope Francis is due to land at Andrews air force base. He will meet with Obama for a “courtesy visit” the next day – the two have met before at the Vatican in 2014 – and will become the first pope to address a joint session of the US Congress on 24 September. The top Republican in the House of Representatives, speaker John Boehner, and the top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, are both Catholic.

The Vatican said that Francis would also visit with a group of homeless people while he is in the US capital, before heading to New York, where he will celebrate vespers at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The pope’s 25 September speech before the UN is expected to centre on the pontiff’s encyclical on the environment. The address will be followed by an interfaith meeting at the Ground Zero memorial in downtown New York. Then he will head back uptown for a meeting with families of immigrants in Harlem, the Vatican said, before heading to Madison Square Garden for mass.

He will also travel to Philadelphia, where, among other stops, he will visit “detainees” at the Curran-Fromhold correctional facility, a prison. He will head back to Rome from Philadephia on 27 September and land at Fiumicino the next morning.

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