by Eileen L. Wittig
I was talking with a non-coffee-drinking friend recently, and mentioned that I was probably going to have to bring caffeinated tea with me on an upcoming trip because there wasn’t going to be a coffeemaker there.
“Addict,” he said. “Nuh uh,” I responded brilliantly. “When’s the last time you went two days without coffee?” he countered. “Two weeks ago,” I shot back. “Three days?” he asked. “… It happened, I just don’t take note of when I do and don’t drink coffee.” Which was a perfectly reasonable response. “Uh huh,” he rolled his eyes.
“I am not addicted to coffee. I will prove it to you … later.” And I finished my cup of coffee. “But,” I said, “I do function better with it, and that is because of science. Black coffee is objectively healthy. In fact, here is an article citing 53 scientific studies saying that coffee is healthy. So even if I am addicted, at least the addiction is to something healthy.”
The article is actually extremely interesting, and by the end you realize that caffeine is surprisingly healthy, definitely a drug, and truly potentially addictive. (But only black coffee is healthy. Sorry, latté lovers.)
The Science of Caffeine
Chemically, caffeine blocks another naturally-occurring chemical, Adenosine, from being received in the brain. When Adenosine isn’t as active, chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine get the chance to be more active.
Dopamine is a feel-good chemical, released by the brain in response to good behavior as a kind of Pavlovian training exercise. Norepinephrine is an energy chemical, working to wake the body, trigger the fight-or-flight response, and increase awareness, memory, and attention – but also restlessness and anxiety. Everything in moderation, right?
But wait, there’s more: caffeine can boost your metabolism and burn fat. True story.
Does this not sound like the definition of a drug?
(Answer: it is. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a drug is “a medicine or substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced to the body.”)
So there’s the science for why drinkers of black coffee have a reason to tell the haters to take a long walk off a short pier, as my mother would say. But there’s a fun screw-you-government aspect to it as well, which is where things really get interesting.
The Legal Drug
“Caffeine is legal,” I told my friend. “It’s even more legal than alcohol. I can’t be arrested for driving while on a caffeine kick, so even if I am addicted, leave me alone.”
Which makes you wonder: if caffeine is an enhancing drug, and it’s legal, why aren’t the others?
“Illegal drugs are addictive, so they’re bad. Caffeine is addictive too, but not, like, addictive,” the government says. “If you’re addicted to a bad drug, you spend all your money on it and it ruins your life.” Do y’all think caffeine is free? Or that caffeine withdrawal headaches are fun?
“Caffeine isn’t a gateway drug,” they argue. Neither is marijuana, yet that’s illegal.
“Coffee is healthy, it does good things for your brain and body.” So do drugs. Which is why doctors, you know, prescribe them. When I told my friend that I function better after I’ve had caffeine, I could have been talking about any number of things, legal and illegal.
“Well, if you take too much of an illegal drug you could hurt someone!” the government says. Fine, but you can say that about pretty much anything. If I don’t sleep enough, my ability to drive is severely impaired. Thus why I sleep more than three hours a night. If I drink too much coffee, my hands get shaky, my attention span shrinks, and I don’t shut up. Talking someone’s ear off would hurt them as much as being asked a literally dopey question, and not being able to focus in traffic could also hurt someone. Thus why I don’t drink that much coffee. There is a line, and I don’t cross it. None of my self-proclaimed coffee addict friends do, either.
“Yeah but it’s so easy to take too much of an illegal drug!” the government argues back. True, but it’s not as if every person takes the exact same amount of everything they consume. If I consumed the same amount of liquor that I do protein or carbs or chocolate, I would be dead. People are capable of adjusting intake. If it’s possible for something to be fine, shouldn’t we just focus on teaching people not to take too much of it and work on rehabilitation instead of locking people away in prison for years and years?
“Well, if it’s illegal, we can avoid the whole problem of people taking too much, because fewer people will do it.” Oh sure, because that worked well during Prohibition. But suppose there would be a short-term spike in drug use if something was suddenly legalized. I bet usage would trail off like it did in Colorado and Portugal, as the excitement of having a new drug readily available wore off. People get bored easily, and I doubt the drugs would be as cheap as coffee.
“It’s just different,” the government finally says. But why is it different? Because caffeine is more socially acceptable? Because there would literally be riots with torches and pitchforks in the streets if it was banned? Because Washington couldn’t function without it?
Kind of, but no: it’s because every race consumes caffeine daily, and always has. The war on drugs began as a racist tactic, and it just never went away.
If you have 15 minutes, you can watch John Oliver explain it here. If not, here’s the short version:
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created in 1930, and racist Henry J. Anslinger was appointed its first commissioner. Anslinger used his new position to attack all the people he didn’t like: mostly African-Americans, Mexicans, and anyone associated with jazz music (proof he was not only racist, but also an uncultured swine).
Anslinger decided to associate drugs – especially marijuana, because it was easiest – with minority criminals in order to gain popular support. He popularized the re-naming of “cannabis” to the Mexican’s name for it – “marihuana” – to make it sound less American and, following, acceptable.
He spread stories of black men seducing white girls after smoking it. He said Asians were coming out of opium dens with “a liking for the charms of Caucasian girls … from good families” and bringing these girls into terrible lives. And he was convinced that “marihuana” was the reason jazz music was so awful, making the musicians “hopelessly confused and playing horribly” and inspiring them to make music sounding “like the jungles in the dead of night.” (Apparently that was a bad thing, assuming he was correct.)
His tactic worked. Nearly 90 years later, it’s still working, and drug arrests are still predominantly minorities even though studies have shown that whites abuse drugs more. Marijuana is still legally as bad as heroin, ecstasy, and LSD (all stereotypically “minority” drugs) – making weed worse than crystal meth, cocaine, and opium (all stereotypically “white” drugs). If marijuana is worse than crystal meth, where should caffeine be in this classification?
If I decided to be racist against hipsters, I could claim that caffeine makes people enjoy all that lame coffee shop music. I could say that baristas and coffee shop owners sell you caffeine so they can control your mind and own you. I could tell you that people come out of coffee shops with wild eyes and running mouths, throwing themselves in front of passing cars as they focus solely on the cups they’re carrying. I could announce that caffeine leads people to lives of dependency and poverty, and that it makes its users inbreed with each other, only to continue the cycle with their own children.
You’d laugh at me, but only until I got Buzzfeed, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times on my side. Then I’d suddenly seem way more believable, wouldn’t I? That worked for Anslinger.
The Convenience of Hypocrisy
You cannot reasonably deny that caffeine is a drug. Same with alcohol. But here we are, living our lives with both of them all over the streets, legal.
Assume the war on drugs is not and never was racist, and that it isn’t even remotely a business venture to raise money for the government, or anything other than pure people truly looking out for the common good. Even if that was the case, shouldn’t they be consistent about it and ban *all* drugs, from crystal meth to caffeine to alcohol to ibuprofen?
The war on drugs is led by flawed human beings for flawed purposes, and their hypocrisy is hurting thousands of people every day by putting non-dangerous offenders behind bars, breaking up their families, and leaving violent crimes unsolved. If the war on drugs is truly a moral issue as they claim, then perhaps they should consider the morality of what they choose to ban, how it’s classified, and what the consequences of their actions are. And they should discuss it over a cup of coffee.
Eileen L. Wittig is an Associate Editor and author of the Lazy Millennial column at FEE. You can follow the Lazy Millennial on Twitter.