Wherein you are invited to engage in a thought exercise: Consider a world in which caffeine, not cannabis, were a Schedule I drug.
In 1970, all caffeinated products are federally prohibited and criminalized: no coffee, no tea, and definitely no chocolate or energy drinks, since these might be particularly appealing to children.
Predictably, an underground market, and a specialized lingo, take root. Despite decades of costly, ineffectual federal eradication efforts, illicit coffee, tea, and cocoa farms flourish in forests, back forties, and basements.
While 43% of U.S. citizens admit to having tried caffeine, and 13% say they are regular consumers, the drug’s illicit status leads most consumers to hide their use, due to ongoing social stigma. “Beanhead” is a widely used dismissive epithet for those who choose to start their day with a cup or two of “hot mud,” or who enjoy a discreet piece of chocolate for dessert.
Parents whose “buzzy bars” accidentally fall into the hands of their children are vilified, and their babies are summarily removed from their homes.
After years of activism, eventually some states open their laws to allow people to grow their own cocoa/coffee/tea plants for personal use. Cafes with clever names like “Caffeine by Design” and “WellBeaning” offer thimble-sized sips of potent bean juice. (Cash-only in these establishments; most banks won’t work with them.) But elsewhere, sometimes just across a state line, individuals who grow or open a cafe risk heavy-handed visits from law enforcement agents, or worse.
When Colorado becomes the first state to legalize and regulate caffeine products for adults 21 and up, neighboring Oklahoma and Nebraska have conniptions. Meanwhile, caffeine-legal Colorado sees an increase in tax revenue, their job market booms, and caffeine-curious tourists flock to the state for a taste of this federally-forbidden fruit…
It may sound far-fetched, but this thought exercise has some basis in science. As far back as 1994 a NIDA researcher compared several licit and illicit substances: alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and nicotine.
When each substance was rated for characteristics such as reinforcement, dependence, and withdrawal, caffeine and cannabis scored remarkably similarly across the board, each receiving “least serious” ratings for three of the five values.
Our scientific understanding of cannabis has come a long way since the mid-90s, and (thanks in part to prohibition), potency levels have as well. Still, despite rising THC levels and an ever-expanding panoply of concentrated methods of ingestion, a recent study out of the Medical College of Wisconsin indicates that cannabis users (even “frequent” consumers) place no particular burden on our health care system.
And yet, last week the DEA stubbornly refused to rectify the decades-long folly of placing cannabis alongside heroin in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The announcement came as no real surprise to those familiar with the workings of the DEA (for more, see this extended analysis of the decision).
For the vast majority of adult users, and for society as a whole, the dangers of cannabis appear to stem largely from its illicit status, rather than from any quality inherent in the plant. In fact, the DEA acknowledged this in its ruling, citing “the danger of arrest” as one reason to keep cannabis in Schedule I. So would it be for today’s coffee or chocolate aficionados, had caffeine ended up in the same Schedule.
So one more thought exercise: Next time you’re at a café sipping a hot mud paid for with a debit or credit card, take a moment to ponder a world in which we treated cannabis just a bit more like caffeine. And be grateful that it’s not the other way around.