Coca leaves on the menu for Pope's visit to Bolivia

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis has not confirmed whether he will chew coca leaves on his trip to Bolivia but may well do so given his respect for local customs, his spokesman said Tuesday.

Coca leaves, the raw ingredient for cocaine, are regarded as an illegal narcotic by many countries but are widely used in Bolivia as a mild stimulant or to relieve aches and pains and combat the effects of altitude sickness.

Bolivian Culture Minister Marko Machicao said on Sunday the pontiff had specifically requested to have some leaves to chew during his July 8-10 visit to the Andean country.

"He can do as he wishes, it seems this is a popular custom for altitude sickness," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters.

"I don't know what he will do, he has not told me," he added. "It is a local custom like a (coca-infused) tea, and you know how much the holy father likes to partake of local customs."

Coca leaves are also consumed in certain provinces in northern Argentina, Francis's homeland.

The leaves are outlawed by the 1961 UN convention on narcotic drugs. Bolivia has long been critical of the convention's provisions in relation to the leaf and expressed a reservation over them when it became a party to the accord in 2013.

Bolivia says the consumption of coca leaves is part of its cultural heritage and has a religious significance for some of its citizens.

Francis will visit Bolivia as part of an eight-day trip to South American in which he will also visit Ecuador and Paraguay.