VIENNA (Reuters) - Bolivian President Evo Morales suggested on Monday that the next Pope try wine made from coca leaf, something Bolivians have chewed for centuries and can also be used to make cocaine.
Morales, himself a former coca leaf farmer who has fought to decriminalize its use by indigenous people, sang its praises at a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs and said the crop would be part of his country's drive to industrialize.
He recalled how Frenchman Angelo Mariani had won a Vatican gold medal in the 19th century for his coca wine, adding: "I really hope the new Pope, who should be named soon, will also use the wine like Mariani."
Roman Catholic cardinals have assembled in Rome to elect a new Pope in secret voting starting on Tuesday, following the abdication of Pope Benedict last month.
Mariani's tonic wine was prized in his time for its perceived benefits for health and vitality, and was enjoyed by public figures ranging from Queen Victoria to Thomas Edison.
In the 19th century, popes Pius X and Leo XIII enjoyed drinking Mariani wine from coca leaves, which Bolivians traditionally chew as a mild stimulant that reduces hunger and altitude sickness.
Bolivia said in January it had been re-admitted to the U.N. anti-narcotics convention after persuading members to recognize the right of its indigenous people to chew the leaf. Morales thanked the conference for that gesture on Monday.
Coca leaf was declared an illegal narcotic in the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, along with substances including cocaine, heroin, opium and morphine.
Bolivia is the biggest cocaine producer after fellow South American states Peru and Colombia. But Morales said the coca plant offers health benefits and has many legitimate uses.
"We have mate (tea), we have wine, we have toothpaste, we have many products," he said. "We even use coca in wedding cakes. It is very fashionable now."
Reporting by Derek Brooks; writing by Michael Shields; editing by Mark Heinrich