Whether Pope Francis Samples Coca Plant a Burning Question

The leaf is used in local teas in Bolivia, where he was headed this afternoon.

ByABC News
July 8, 2015, 1:47 PM

— -- Millions of people have been following Pope Francis during his tour through Ecuador, but his actions this afternoon in Bolivia will be even more carefully watched.

The question on many minds today is "will he or won't he" after Francis is likely offered coca leaves to chew or tea brewed from the plant.

The plant is seen as a local delicacy that is regularly used to help treat altitude sickness in the town of La Paz, Bolivia, which is about 12,000 feet above sea level.

While those uses are widely accepted there, coca is known more globally as the plant that is the main ingredient in cocaine.

Coca was declared an illegal substance there in 1961, but that hasn't stopped dignitaries from trying it while on Bolivian soil, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Pope John Paul II drank tea made from coca during his 1988 visit to Bolivia, CNA reported.

PHOTO: Pope John Paul II blesses Bolivian faithful May 13, 1988 at Tajira airport.
Pope John Paul II blesses Bolivian faithful May 13, 1988 at Tajira airport.

The "will he or won't he" debate for Pope Francis, 78, started when Bolivian culture minister Marko Machicao said the Argentina-born pontiff "specifically requested" to chew coca, according to the BBC.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi remained non-committal in a statement to CNA when asked about the pope's verdict ahead of this afternoon's visit, saying he "wouldn’t be surprised because the pope likes taking part in popular customs. The pope will do as he sees fit."

Lombardi added: "We’ll see if he follows local customs.”