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Regulate Cannabis Like…Coffee?

Maybe alcohol isn’t the substance we should be using to influence cannabis regulations. Perhaps cannabis isn’t alcohol, perhaps it is coffee.
Written by
Dr. Amanda Reiman
November 5, 2023

The suggestion that cannabis should be regulated like alcohol was necessary and brilliant. Science supports that cannabis is safer than alcohol, yet propaganda had convinced society that cannabis was the more dangerous of the two. Both were associated with diminished capacity to make good decisions, impacts on motor skills, and eventual dependence with regular use. Alcohol, like cannabis, had gone through a period of prohibition that invented an illicit market, and many compared the craft nature of cannabis cultivation to the grapes or hops used to make the finest wines and ales. Critics of this analogy point out that cannabis, unlike alcohol, has numerous therapeutic uses, and, unlike alcohol, no fatal overdose.  If federal law allowed for the production and sale of cannabis as it does alcohol, we may have actually achieved a reality where cannabis and alcohol were treated the same. Instead, cannabis has more stringent regulations, higher taxes, more restrictions on sales, and is being denied a national framework for distribution and lack of access to traditional business financial support. Maybe alcohol isn’t the substance we should be using to influence cannabis regulations. Perhaps cannabis isn’t alcohol, perhaps it is coffee.

Health Benefits

The potential health benefits of cannabinoids have been culturally known for thousands of years, but only studied via modern science for several decades. The Schedule I nature of cannabis has made it all but impossible to take the research from lab rats to humans and from isolated cannabinoids to whole plant medicine. Even so, several benefits have been supported by research including use for pain, nausea, Epilepsy, glaucoma and more. Coffee also has proven health benefits including living longer, reduced risk of Type 2 Diabetes, heart failure, Parkinson’s Disease and colon cancer. The active ingredient in coffee, caffeine, also has health benefits on its own, but the entire coffee drink enhances the beneficial effects (sound familiar?) And, even coffee without caffeine has health benefits (like a cannabis product high in CBD but with no THC). As for alcohol, while low to moderate drinking used to be associated with health benefits, recent studies have created doubt and caused the CDC to revise their recommendations to say that even low levels of drinking can be risky. 

The Love of the Plant (or the Bean)

When someone LOVES coffee, they enjoy getting their nose close to the roasted beans and taking a big whiff. Smell is an important part of the coffee experience. When someone LOVES cannabis, they enjoy getting their nose close to the buds and taking a big whiff. Both the cannabis and coffee plants are revered by connoisseurs in part because of their unique and pungent aromas. The complexity and intensity of the aromas add to the experience and are differentiators for those who pride themselves on their deep knowledge of the products. In coffee, that person is called a connoisseur, in cannabis, a ganjier. And while the wine and beer industries produce experts as well (Sommelier and Cicerone), there is less of a connection with the raw product, the grapes or the hops. For both coffee and cannabis, the love affair starts with the plant.

Psychoactive But Regular Use

When someone says they have an alcoholic drink 3-4 times per day every day, it may be cause for concern. Thirty percent of adults 18+ in the US who consume alcohol, have less than 1 drink per week. American coffee drinkers drink about 3 cups per dayOne third of cannabis consumers in the US use cannabis multiple times per day. The point being that cannabis and coffee consumers are more similar in their use patterns than cannabis and alcohol consumers. Coffee consumers usually stack their use towards the first half of the day, while cannabis consumers stack theirs towards the end. Coffee consumers might have an afternoon cup, just like cannabis consumers might have a morning toke. 

Both cannabis and coffee contain psychoactive compounds, THC and caffeine. People have variable sensitivities to both of these substances. Some people can drink 3 espressos and barely feel it, others have a racing heartbeat after just one cup of coffee. Some can consume heavy cannabis concentrates and function normally, others have to lie down after 5mg of THC. People with a family or personal history of high blood pressure or heart issues should take care when ingesting caffeine and people with histories of psychosis or schizophrenia should take care when ingesting THC. For regular consumers, both caffeine and THC cessation can result in withdrawals and a reduced tolerance. Michael Pollan discusses this in his audiobook Caffeine. Caffeine withdrawals include: headaches, fatigue, decreased energy, drowsiness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating and foggy brain. THC withdrawals include: lack of appetite, mood changes, trouble sleeping, headache, loss of appetite, stomach problems and sweating. Alcohol withdrawals include: Headache, anxiety, tremors or shakes, insomnia, fatigue, mood changes, stomach issues, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, hyperthermia, rapid abnormal breathing, hallucinations and seizure. Of the three substances, only alcohol withdrawals have the potential to be fatal. 

But They Aren’t A 100% Match

Even though cannabis use patterns, health benefits, connoisseurs, and withdrawal symptoms are more on par with caffeine than alcohol, there are two important differences between caffeine and THC that must be accounted for: level of psychoactivity and use by young people. Yes, caffeine can have psychoactive-like effects, especially for infrequent users. But, the impact on perception and judgment is greater with THC. Now, not for all THC consumers, as those who have been consuming regularly for a long time are not impacted in the same way as new or infrequent users. BUT, concerns about driving while intoxicated, and other issues related to competent behavior differ between users of caffeine and users of THC. Second, caffeine is not an age restricted product in the US. Sodas, coffee candies and other items available to children contain caffeine. Recently, a 21 year old woman died after ingesting a highly caffeinated drink from Panera. While we have never seen a death from THC toxicity, there are reasons not to allow minors access to THC products (they probably shouldn’t have access to soda either, but that’s another article). 

Let’s Regulate Cannabis Like…Cannabis

There does not exist a perfect blueprint for cannabis regulation. This plant spent so long being demonized that creating objective, health and science based policy was a pipedream (no pun intended). While the current model of cannabis regulation claims to be in the spirit of, well, spirits, the lack of federal legality means all of the rules with none of the market. All of the barriers with none of the scalability. Look, I am not advocating for the Starbucks of cannabis, but rather challenging the notion that cannabis should automatically be put in the regulatory bucket alongside a substance responsible for the deaths of 140,000 people per year, and 30% of all driving fatalities. The cloud of Reefer Madness continues to dissipate, let’s bring on the common sense.

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