You grind them into to powder then snort them up your nose! Well, of course not. Although many people make the mistake, the centuries-old tradition of chewing coca leaves has absolutely nothing to do with cocaine. In their natural form, coca leaves provide nothing more than a mild stimulant, akin to coffee. Brewing the leaves into tea is popular among all levels of Bolivian society, but among the working class, and especially for those whose labor is physically demanding, coca is usually chewed.
While “chewing” is the popular term for it, the leaves should never actually be munched upon. Instead, they should be placed one-by-one into the cheek, forming a small saliva-generating ball which you just leave there. Because the stems of the leaves can hurt the inside of your cheek, you should remove them first. Some remove the stems by sliding the leaves between their two front teeth, while others use a lick-fold-tear method.
After you’ve got a good amount of leaves squirreled away inside your cheek, you need to activate the alkaloids inside them to feel any effect. Some people use bicarbonate powder, but a more pleasant option is lejía: a sweet-tasting combination of ash and flavor. A tiny nip every fifteen minutes or so, and the mild stimulant effects of the coca can last for hours.
Chewing coca leaves acts as an appetite suppressant, helps with altitude sickness, provides energy and improves digestion. It also mildly numbs your cheek. It’s impossible to get “addicted” and they don’t provide any sort of high. Making cocaine out of coca leaves is a complicated, chemical process, and chewing the leaves is no more an act of “drug consumption” than eating a poppy-seed bagel.
While we were on the ferry over to the Isla del Sol, we were subjected to a monologue from a self-impressed British guy wearing colorful over-sized sunglasses and a shark’s tooth necklace. All the awesome places he’s been! All the incredible things he’s done! He had a bag of coca with him, and shoved a handful into his mouth, actually chewing them like a cow chews grass. As he did so, he bragged about how awesome coca was and how he felt an instant buzz. We had to stifle our urge to push him off the boat. Please, don’t be that guy.
Further reading: The Unfairly Maligned Coca Leaf