When asked to name a psychoactive drug, most people default to common examples like cocaine, heroin, or cannabis. But there’s a drug that has wholly evaded the effects of the war on drugs and has, in fact, managed to secure its position as the most widely available, least stigmatised and commonly-used mind-altering substance – caffeine.
It may not be immediately obvious that caffeine is a drug, or if it is – it’s not seen as one we should be concerned about. But, as any long-term user who has tried to quit caffeine will attest – it most certainly is a drug, and quite a potent one at that.
Caffeine directly affects our central nervous system and the initial effects of caffeine range from improved focus, energy and mood, to an increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as frequent urination and gastrointestinal upset.
As caffeine contains no nutritional value, it works by borrowing energy from your future self by blocking brain receptors responsible for tiredness. While convenient in the short-term, in the long run this will result in poorer deep sleep quality and increased fatigue. Moreover, as with any drug, if used regularly – the human body gradually develops a tolerance to it, meaning that more caffeine is required over time to achieve the same effect.
In response to our increased tolerance manufacturers have started producing stronger energy drinks, allowing us to consume caffeine more efficiently and at considerably higher doses. A cup of coffee contains an average of about 60mg of caffeine, whereas energy drinks can contain as much as 300mg in a single serving – 5 times more than the amount found in regular coffee.
This phenomenon is not unique to caffeine – alcohol has also become stronger over time, as humans have learned the skill of distillation and developed a tolerance to lower percentage alcohols. The same goes for cannabis which contains triple the amount of THC than it did 26 years ago.
For those wishing to quit, the stimulant properties of caffeine can mean uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which include headaches, fatigue, depression, difficulty concentrating, nausea and muscle pains. These can be so severe that some researchers have called for caffeine withdrawal to be included in future versions of the DSM.
The fact that caffeine has largely eluded drug regulation means that it has become, above all, cheap and readily available. You can get a cup of coffee in any office, petrol station or shopping centre, with thousands of cafe’s dotted around the country – the sort of accessibility that is unimaginable when it comes to other drugs and also makes caffeine a very sustainable habit (not many people end up in serious debt over coffee).
The low price is aided by a lack of strict taxation, which is normally applied to other psychoactive substances such as alcohol. Caffeine, notably, is also exempt from strict age regulation, aside from energy drinks which are not meant to be sold to anyone under 16.
It has become so accessible, in fact, that on average in the UK, approximately 95 million cups of coffee are consumed each day. This figure doesn’t include caffeinated tea, supplements or energy drinks, so the reality of nation-wide caffeine use is truly staggering. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 80% of the population consumes caffeine on a daily basis. If it was reclassified as a drug, most offices and households would instantly become full of drug addicts.
So why is it that governments across the world haven’t clamped down on caffeine use? Why are there no caffeine rehab centres or support groups for those wishing to quit? The answer is both straightforward and controversial – without caffeine there would be no capitalism.
Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, most of us can agree that working 40 hours a week, often in mind-numbing jobs, requires some sort of chemical stimulation. The human brain, simply put, isn’t built for the demands of modern capitalism.
Spending hours concentrating on a sedentary task, working late or attending multiple back-to-back meetings requires prolonged focus that our primate brains are not wired for. And when it comes to naturally-occurring widely-available stimulants – caffeine wins every time.
A popular school of thought suggests that caffeine has been integral to the way modern society functions as a whole. The Enlightenment era and the Industrial Revolution were both powered by caffeine. When it arrived in the UK in the mid-17th century, coffee houses popped up all over London.
These new establishments provided a space for (mostly white, well-educated men) to congregate and discuss politics, science and economics, resulting in important discoveries which shaped the world as we know it today.
This is why, centuries later, paid coffee breaks have been incorporated into US employment law since the 1950’s and why free coffee is a staple in most modern offices. Employers provide workers with a free drug and encourage them to consume it in the workplace because it is beneficial to their bottom line – caffeinated workers are productive workers.
This isn’t to say that we should all quit coffee in protest – the desire to alter our consciousness by ingesting chemical substances has been around for most of human history. Some research suggests that caffeine might even have some health benefits due to its antioxidant properties.
But it is time to reevaluate how society views drug users. After all, that cup of coffee and a line of cocaine aren’t as different as you may think.
This piece was written by Tamara Krivskaya. Tamara is a freelance journalist, writing about all things health, drugs and harm reduction. Tweets @_tamaratomorrow.