Coffee is a tropical evergreen plant originating in Ethiopia but now grown worldwide. Two species, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, are predominantly sold as a recreational stimulant. Referred to “joe”, “java”, “brew”, “mud”, “liquid cocaine”, “espresso” and “go juice”, coffee is a drug of abuse, primarily used for its psychoactive and stimulant effects, similar to cocaine and methamphetamine. Most commonly, coffee seeds (referred to as “beans” by users) are ground into a fine powder and put through a ritual water extraction to be ingested orally. Coffee and its main alkaloid, caffeine, can also be eaten, snorted, injected intravenously, and smoked.
Dependence and Addiction
Addiction to caffeine is common. In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association published its 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, and for the first time listed Caffeine Use Disorder (CUD) and Caffeine Withdrawal Disorder. Research suggests up to 20% of caffeine users meet the criteria for CUD. Caffeine addicts attempting to quit have shown signs of withdrawal and cognitive impairment. In one study, 85% of addicts reported at least one caffeine-related self harm in the previous 12 months.
Other Health Issues
Caffeine is also known to cause low birth weight in infants if consumed during pregnancy. Common side effects of caffeine include, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, “headaches, anxiety, insomnia, cardiac arrhythmia (palpitations), high blood pressure, gastrointestinal and urinary disorders, prostate trouble and PMS. In addition, studies have revealed unhealthy tendencies among people who consume large amounts of caffeine. For example, researchers have found that those who abuse coffee often smoke cigarettes, get too little exercise and eat meals too high in fat.” Caffeine-induced psychosis has been reported.
Caffeine has caused death. The FDA has received 1,379 reports of caffeine-caused deaths and 2,566 reports of serious adverse events, all listed in the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) database, an open, public database that anyone can post to. The FDA has used the term “kratom-related deaths” to report any death where mitragynine was found in the system of the deceased, including those who have died with lethal amounts of other drugs in their system, those who died in accidents with mitragynine in their system, and one man who was found with a gunshot wound to the chest who happened to have kratom near him at the time of death. By this criteria, we can estimate “caffeine-related deaths” to number in the millions, even though only a fraction were caused by caffeine alone.
The LD50 (dose lethal to 50% of test animals) of pure caffeine has been measured at 192 mg/kg in rats. So caffeine is deadly for test animals at a lower dose, and therefore can be considered more toxic, than not only aspirin (200 mg/kg) and ibuprofen (636 mg/kg) but ketamine (229 mg/kg), morphine (400 mg/kg), formaldehyde (600-800 mg/kg), arsenic (763 mg/kg), methanol (830 mg/kg), ethanol or pure alcohol (7,060 mg/kg), an alkaloid in green tomatoes called tomatine (500 mg/kg), and pure mitragynine, the main alkaloid in kratom (one study showed an LD50 of 547.7 mg/kg).
Most deaths have occurred after ingestion of pure caffeine powder, available from dietary supplements manufacturers who push caffeine either online or in retail stores.
History and Culture
The fearful reaction to coffee‘s arrival in Europe paralleled the reaction to the arrival of cannabis, opium, cocaine, and kratom from Euro-American culture in the United States. Fear of coffee was widespread from authorities. Coffee was called a “bitter invention of Satan” by clergy in 1615 shortly after it arrived in Europe. In 1746, Sweden banned coffee and coffee paraphernalia. In Prussia in 1777, Frederick the Great argued coffee was interfering with the consumption of beer. By the 19th century, caffeine abuse was normalized in Europe and American culture.
In 1892, caffeine was infused with cocaine and sugar in a 3×100 mixture called Coca Cola. The company later removed cocaine but retained the legal highs of caffeine and sugar, to great success.
In the 1960s, American coffee houses were linked with communist, anarchist, and anti-authoritarian activity.
In 1971, three caffeine dealers opened a company called Starbucks in Seattle. By the 1990s, these small-time drug dealers had grown Starbucks into an empire and would set up shop in every town in the United States, putting small dealers out of business, and making it easier for users to get high on caffeine.
Coffee and its main alkaloid caffeine is not scheduled under the Controlled Substances Act and therefore legal to sell, purchase, and possess, not only in the United States but in every country in the world, despite being an addictive, deadly drug. It is sometimes marketed as a “legal high”. Pure, extracted caffeine is sold in powder or capsule form by poorly-regulated dietary supplements corporations as an energy booster, exercise enhancer, or cocaine alternative. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Pure and highly concentrated caffeine products present a significant public health threat” and “are often marketed in bulk packaging with up to thousands of servings per container, requiring the consumer to measure out a safe serving from what can be a toxic or even lethal amount of bulk product”. Thus far, neither the FDA nor their parent Department of Health and Human Services have recommended scheduling caffeine to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The family of an Australian man who died of a caffeine overdose after ingesting just one teaspoon of the drug in powder form called for a ban of the drug in Australia.
Psychiatrists in India have voiced concerns about the “intense need for appropriate public health regulatory measures and awareness about addictive potential & harms related to caffeine”.
In this article I’ve chosen to focus on negative, yet factual aspects of a drug that is consumed safely by millions of people every day to mostly positive outcomes. Yet the reality remains, like other drugs, caffeine can be addictive, physically and mentally damaging, and even deadly in strong enough doses.
Negative aspects of other substances have been amplified to justify their prohibition, though most people consume most psychoactive substances to mostly positive outcomes. Mitragynine, the main alkaloid in kratom, a chemical far less toxic than caffeine, has been demonized in this way. Legal opioids prescribed safely to millions of people by doctors are also under attack because a minority have misused them. Damage and death caused by another “legal high”, alcohol, is more obvious, yet most people drink responsibly.
The term “drug” is generally used for recreational substances other than caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. Many Americans do not consider caffeine dangerous, much less a drug, as mild adverse events (such as headache from withdrawal) are normalized, and extreme adverse events are rare. This is not due to the inherent safety of caffeine, but to centuries of knowledge about responsible use of caffeine in the preferred, safe method of administration: coffee. Safe supply of coffee has also been ensured by its legal status.
Centuries of knowledge about the safe method of administration of kratom and its alkaloids exist as well. The difference is that knowledge of kratom tea had not been transmitted to Europeans and Americans from Southeast Asia until recently. Therefore kratom is more easily cast off as a dangerous, mysterious, addictive substance by authorities.
Similarly, all substances considered “hard drugs” have traditional methods of administration that can be safe for healthy adults. The chewing of coca leaves (used to make cocaine) in Colombia, and khat leaves (used to make cathinones, related to synthetic cathinones or “bath salts”) in parts of North Africa have gone on for centuries with rare, mostly mild side effects, akin to the consumption of coffee.
To those who justify drug prohibition because of the dangers of those drugs, please ask yourself these questions: Since caffeine is addictive and potentially dangerous, should coffee be against the law to sell and possess? Should you or someone you know give up their coffee because some people have died from caffeine? Do you know people who have consumed coffee for years or decades without any serious consequences? Should coffee growers in Colombia be terrorized by law enforcement? Should coffee shops be shut down? Should people go to jail for keeping a kilo of coffee in their cupboards?
If your answer to any of these questions is “No”, then consider that other potentially addictive and potentially damaging substances are used by most people most of the time to beneficial, positive outcomes. Consider then that negative outcomes like addiction are defined by psychiatrists as psychological disorders, and not “caused by” inert substances. Consider the possibility that demonizing substances as inherently evil should be left in the dark ages.