Monday, April 19, 2004

LIMA, Peru — It looks and tastes pretty much like the many brands of bottled iced tea that line American supermarket shelves — just don’t drink it before a drug test.

Kdrink is one of two new bottled beverages offered in Peruvian stores this year made with a formula using coca leaves, the base ingredient in cocaine. Each bottle of Kdrink contains a trace 0.6 milligrams of the outlawed stimulant.

Although that amount of natural, unprocessed cocaine carries less kick than a cup of coffee, it is enough to create a legal headache for exporters. With the notable exception of Coca-Cola, products using coca leaves are banned in most countries beyond the Andes by strict U.S. and United Nations import regulations.

But two new Peruvian drinks — Kdrink iced tea and Vortex energy drink — hope to buck the system and find legal paths into foreign markets. The makers of Kdrink think that many nations will allow the beverages if vague anticoca rules are clarified, and the bottlers of Vortex are banking on a cocaine-free coca formula.

Pitching the pick-me-up possibilities of coca leaves is nothing new. In 1886, an Atlanta pharmacist invented Coca-Cola as a brain-stimulating tonic that combined cocaine and an extract from the caffeine-producing kola nut.

Coke dropped cocaine from its recipe around 1900, but the secret formula still calls for a cocaine-free coca extract produced at a Stepan Co. factory in Maywood, N.J.

Stepan buys about 100 metric tons of dried Peruvian coca leaves each year, said Marco Castillo, spokesman for Peru’s state-owned National Coca Co.

For decades, Peruvian authorities with assistance from Washington have sought to eradicate illicit coca production and persuade farmers to switch to legal crops. But the black market demand for cocaine worldwide means that coffee, pineapples and other crops promoted as alternatives to coca by the government often fail to match coca’s profit margins.

In February, hundreds of Peruvian coca farmers from remote mountainous jungle regions met in Lima. Among their demands: They want the government to end eradication campaigns and develop new markets for coca-based products.

Devida, Peru’s counterdrug agency, estimates that 90 percent of the country’s coca-leaf production goes to the narcotics trade, but says it is open to finding new legal uses.

“Right now, the best alternative crop is legal coca because it has the best price,” said Fernando Hurtado, director of alternative development for Devida. “What we want to avoid and fight is coca going to narcotics traffickers.”

Thousands of years before the existence of processed cocaine, highland Indians chewed coca to ward off hunger and fatigue. Considered an integral part of Peruvian culture, coca is offered to Andean gods and sold in packaged tea bags in grocery stores.

To meet local demand, Peru permits the legal cultivation of less than 30,000 acres of coca bushes.

Eduardo Mazzini, director of Kokka Royal Food & Drink, said the idea for Kdrink arose two years ago. He said some Spanish friends had been visiting the former Inca capital of Cuzco and became enchanted with the coca tea served to tourists as a remedy for altitude sickness. They suggested bottling the tea.

Since then, Peruvian and Spanish backers have opened a sales office in Spain and invested about $300,000 in producing Kdrink, Mr. Mazzini said. The tea sells for about $1 in 10-ounce bottles that proclaim “divine energy.”

Mr. Mazzini said the drink is selling “better than expected,” but didn’t provide figures.

Silvia Dongo, a pharmaceutical chemist who helped develop Kdrink, said the beverage provides energy from 15 vitamins and minerals, 12 amino acids and 14 to 16 alkaloids found naturally in coca leaves.

“Drinking coca beverages is a way to seek a natural and healthy stimulation,” she said.

Meanwhile, Vortex is seeking a share of the “energy drink” market dominated by the likes of Austria’s Red Bull, a hyper-caffeinated carbonated beverage popular with young club goers who often mix it with hard liquor before hitting the dance floor.

Unlike Kdrink producers, Vortex’s makers decided to tackle the export problem by removing two blacklisted stimulants found in coca — cocaine and egonina — from their formula.

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