Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

November 26, 2011

The Devil’s Bean

Filed under: science, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 7:18 pm

One morning, I was in a hurry to get some herbs weighed out and packaged, so I skipped breakfast. Instead, I drank three or four cups of straight black coffee as I worked. The caffeine mobilized enough stored energy to float me through the task. By the time I was done, though, I felt pretty woozy and I had to go lie down. “Man,” I thought to myself, “this is worse than any drinking hangover of recent memory. I can’t get up and do anything — I might as well be dozing in a heroin nod, and that would feel much nicer anyways (so I’m told). Why is it that caffeine is treated as a soft drug, or even a non-drug? It’s clearly an evil, disabling substance!”

The acceptance or rejection of drugs into American society has been a bit arbitrary, as cultural taboos often are. Packaging and promoting tobacco like candy turned out to be a clusterfuck of global proportions — we probably should have left tobacco with its traditional indigenous users. On the other hand, ibogaine has mainly been used in this country as a one-shot cure for hard drug addiction, so you would think that the anti-drug folks would be promoting the stuff instead of banning it. I guess it’s too weird and African. There is a whole lot of culture and history reflected in the drug laws, sometimes pretty ugly. They weren’t exactly handed down by God on numbered tablets, you know what I’m saying?

So, let’s go together down the rabbit-hole of caffeine-inspired delusion, and imagine a world in which coffee, cocoa and tea have never been accepted into American society. For a long while, various state and local caffeine bans targeted Arab, Chinese or Latin American immigrant populations. Finally, in the late 1960’s, the federal government put caffeine into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act — that is, the lawbooks declared coffee to be dangerous and without medical benefit.

You can’t get coffee from a nice, safe grocery store in this world. “Coffee house” has all the sinister connotations of “crack house.” (Starbuck’s still exists, slinging different flavors of coca tea). Skinny, twitchy “caffiends” prowl the streets, committing petty thefts and muggings to raise cash for their next cup, because coffee is pleasurable, highly addictive, and illegal — much like heroin. It is also known to cause paranoia. Caffiends are totally consumed by a cycle of obtaining coffee, drinking coffee, acting wild under its influence, sleeping off the drain on their bodies, and then looking to score some more coffee before the dreaded withdrawals hit them. In this alternate reality, John Lennon still wrote the song “Cold Turkey,” but it’s entitled “This Headache.” Users are afraid to seek treatment for their addiction, or even discuss caffeine use with their doctor.

Coffee now costs $200 a pound, and it’s a crumbly, pale-tan bean you can expect for that price. Often, the bean is processed into crystal caffeine by laboratories in the coffee-growing countries. The beans are crushed by exploited children working giant mortars, and then a mixture of acetone and other solvents is poured over the grind, collected in drums, and evaporated to leave a somewhat pure white powder behind. Crystal caffeine is more dangerous than the natural form, and overdose cases are common in most emergency rooms across the United States. The massive illegal profits of the coffee business have supported violent criminal cartels, who wage civil wars in Columbia and (of course) Java.

Lately a new form of caffeine has hit the inner cities, a liquid form cheaper than the crystal. “Snap” is manufactured by basement cooks who dissolve the caffeine in dilute carbonic and phosphoric acids, and then add flavoring and a chemically modified form of sugar. Especially appealing to children, snap causes an ugly condition of dental decay and gum disease known as “snap mouth.”

Tens of thousands of Americans are locked up for caffeine or coffee-related offenses, though critics of the drug war point out that rehab would be a better option than jail. Some also point to coffee’s spiritual use in certain Muslim prayer traditions, and its medical use by migraineurs, as reasons to accept use of the drug in limited contexts. Police and prosecutors claim that the reformers are just trying to get their foot in the door for full legalization — it’s a thought that scares everyone but the hardest-core libertarians and radicals. Society would surely fall apart. Do you want to see a coffee house on your block, or what?

Well, that’s just a drug-fuelled fantasy. Is it realistic? Some American consumers would still want coffee if it were illegal, and it’s a truly addictive drug, to boot. So I would expect a black market to form, something that would fuel organized crime and gang violence, as well as promoting purified caffeine over bulky (hard to smuggle) coffee and tea. Coffee addicts might well feel paranoid, face social stigma, and just possibly go broke supporting their habit. I’m not trying to minimize the danger of hard drug use by comparing it to caffeine, but many of the health problems hard drug users experience are related to issues like irregular eating and sleep or sloppy injection techniques, and they’re just not inherent to any particular substance. Use caffeine stupidly enough, and you could wind up looking pretty rough.

The government would propagandize against caffeine and Hollywood and the local news would follow, so people would drink coffee with fears of addiction and insanity in mind, and lots of health problems and insane behavior would be blamed on caffeine.  The relative dangers of coffee against other foods and drugs would be almost impossible to weigh rationally. (If coffee turned out to be socially and medically benign even under harsh prohibition, the establishment would fall back on the “gateway drug” theory — coffee users are driven to find something stronger, like methamphetamine or cocaine. Since you’d have to break drug law taboo and talk to a drug dealer to get coffee, it might well be the beginning of a broader relationship with illegal drugs.)

It looks to me as if the danger in a plant or a chemical has a little bit to do with what the chemical does to the human body, and everything to do with how we treat it. We’re a multicultural country with access to basically the entire world of drugs, traditional or designer, and we’ve not found a way to handle that yet. Pop (aka snap), alcohol and Zoloft are aggressively marketed by their makers, their dangers downplayed to a disclaimer at the most. Coca and opium products, and methamphetamine are used secretly, and frequently with the expectation of self-destruction, which enhances their dangers. And a pariah like marijuana would cause very little harm were it not legally outcaste — the big downside is the risk of being caught, which can lead to paranoia and secretive behavior, besides the possible financial loss and jail time.

I drank some more coffee to fuel this rant. Now I’m sweating and my hands are shaking, I’m wondering if I can eat with my appetite ruined by this powerful stimulant, and I might be raving like a lunatic. I’ve tried to quit coffee (on account of worker exploitation and rainforest destruction), broken the physical addiction, and relapsed weeks later because of the hold the stuff has on my psyche. I’ve also enjoyed its flavor and buzz, stayed awake when needed, and bonded socially over coffee. By a certain logic, I ought to be arrested and thrown in jail or rehab with years of urine testing ahead of me, but I think that it’s better for both society and me if I’m allowed to handle my issue with a little more independence. Anyways, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Most Prisoners, you can at least make up your own mind, as to what’s your cup of tea, and which cup of tea you think ought to be spiked with stigma and prison time.

Coffe and Tea

Drugs of abuse.

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8 Comments »

  1. Cool post!

    Ever tried mate? Has a different profile of theobromine, theophylline, and I forget the third one… anyway it’s different than coffee or tea but has similar stimulative & mood-elevating properties. Many grocery stores should carry it in the tea section, though possibly not the Kroger of Habit. I mention it because there’s often another substance that gives somewhat similar results, e.g. pot and ativan are not completely dissimilar in psychological effects, and kava kava has some of the sociability & mood-enhancing effects that a small dose of ecstasy might have. Kava kava in Western formulations is not entirely safe to use, either… yet you can buy the tea at most groceries. Anyway, arguing that legal drugs are safer than illegal ones doesn’t hold up… pot is definitely not more dangerous than ativan, for instance… but more to the point, forcing drugs onto the street where dosages & concentrations will be tampered with is obviously going to increase dangers, not decrease them. Nor is addictiveness the issue that distinguishes legal and illegal, since Vicodin and its ilk appear to be the most addictive substances known to man, so addictive that prescription drug deaths have tripled in the past decade (attributed to opiates) and 1 in 20 Americans over 12 have misused pain killers. Pfizer et al better watch it, as they are cutting into the CIA’s narcotics market.

    No rhyme or reason to the laws….

    Comment by freelearner — November 29, 2011 @ 4:06 am

    • It’s really harsh that opiates are killing so many people. Limiting their availability too strictly sends people over to heroin and screws over chronic pain patients. If prescription deaths have multiplied like that, and it’s truly due to the opiates, then liberalizing the policy on them is dangerous, too.
      Some portraits of the ancient Egyptians have them smoking opium constantly (between swigs of beer), so maybe the problem is not with our urges but more with the form of the drugs. People cut the skins off of Oxycontins to defeat the time-release feature, Vicodins are spiked with acetaminophen. I’m hoping to grow some California poppies next year, which don’t even contain morphine but only wimpier molecules, and they’re good for analgesia, mild sedation, and anyone who might be kicking pills.
      Another thing — people switch pills because they are getting drug tested, switching doctors or whatever, and that is often when they overdose and die :(
      I’ve heard of mate, I’ll have to try that and guarana too.

      Comment by paragardener — December 1, 2011 @ 6:33 am

      • I think your views on opiates might be skewed by the myopia of the mainstream media. You are correct about over-regulation harming those with pain (e.g, see http://updates.pain-topics.org/2011/12/tales-from-trenches-in-war-on-pain.html#more for a doctor’s view), but I think you’re missing something when you write of an “epidemic” of harm from painkiller prescriptions. It does seem overdoses have increased by the factor you cite during the past three decades, yet the amount of opiates dispensed by prescription during the same period has increased by about 3 and 1/2 fold (due to an aging population, increasing palliative and hospice care, and higher survival rates from cancer and other diseases, among other factors). Thus, over this period, opiates have become relatively SAFER. Please double check my research but I’m pretty sure of the numbers. [“To justify a crackdown that will be effective only if it hurts people in pain, the Office of National Drug Control Policy says we are experiencing a “prescription drug abuse crisis” that amounts to an “epidemic.” Although there is little evidence of such an epidemic in the federal government’s own survey data, the number of fatal overdoses involving opioid analgesics nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2007. Meanwhile, the amount of opioids prescribed per person has increased by an even larger percentage, meaning the risk of overdose is smaller today than it was a decade ago.” – from http://reason.com/archives/2011/04/27/drug-control-vs-pain-control%5D. Of course, if you believe the increase in prescriptions is not because of factors like those above, but instead due to “pusher doctors”, then this point isn’t as compelling. But, if you really doubt the ability of doctors to prescribe properly, then why have a regulation by prescription system at all?

        So, my question/point is, if the relative safety of opiates is improving or at least holding steady, why do so many folks believe the MSM line about an “epidemic” and, further, believe it to the extent that horrible over-regulation — as in the coming REMS program or the horrible program in Washington state — is seen as the answer, or even an acceptable alternative? For 411 on the Washington program check out http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2012873602_drugs12m.html.

        Why can’t we just accept the fact some items are not 100% safe? Assumption of risk is a phrase that comes to mind.

        One day soon, for your safety, paragardener, they will make the Devil’s Bean “safe.” Then what will you drink when tired because if it is “safe” then it will either be relatively unavailable or it will taste horrible (or its stimulant effect will be so blunted, you will need to spike it with something)? Maybe methamfetamine will remain unfettered with over regulation?

        Comment by julian — December 2, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

      • A 3x increase in deaths is a 3x increase in deaths, regardless of how many additional pills it represents. There is definitely a problem here, though I don’t suppose that second-guessing doctors and threatening them with felonies is the solution.
        I found a report with some of the raw statistics: http://www.doctordeluca.com/Library/WOD/Rot3-DeathOpioidsUp06.pdf
        It looks like opiates still only kill 100 people per 10 million per year, and that deaths from other drugs including cocaine have increased along a kind of similar track. Obviously, nothing has changed in the regulation of cocaine (still the favorite of the ear-nose-and-throat specialist), so I’ve got to wonder what’s really going on.
        Here are two ideas to make pain control safer: 1) All pain patients are prescribed cannabis, or “virtual cannabis” consisting of THC + CBD in a pill. This lowers the dose opiates required somewhat, and over time protects nerves from damage, preventing neuropathic pain from developing. 2) We separate recreational users and addicts from the medical market by legalizing and taxing natural opium for the general population.
        Astonishingly, no one has actually put it to me to design the opiate policy of the future.
        I have to call you out for being dead wrong on one point there, julian: no one is ever going to regulate the Devil’s Bean. It’s, like, the official drug of industrial capitalism.

        Comment by paragardener — December 3, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

  2. I don’t disagree with you about the bean not being regulated. But I am disappointed in my inability to convey irony.

    Comment by julian — December 5, 2011 @ 2:51 am

  3. I get the irony, I’m just losing track of how many levels we’re into here.

    Comment by paragardener — December 5, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    • Tuesday, January 24, 2012
      Science in the Courtroom

      I’m currently working on a piece for Huffington Post on the latest prescription painkiller hysteria. In researching the piece, I found this 2010 Time piece by Maia Szalavitz on how post-mortem overdose diagnoses may be overstated.

      The problem is that it’s difficult to isolated a particular drug as cause of death. So the rise in opioid-related overdose deaths that the CDC and numerous media outlets have been screaming about for the last few months could be the result of lots of people ODing on painkillers, or it could merely be that because more people are taking painkillers, more people are likely to have painkillers in their systems when they die. Hence, the use of the term “opioid-related” to describe these deaths. That allows panic-sowing without the need to establish any causal connection. (It’s similar to the way the government calculates “marijuana-related emergency room incidents.)

      But the problem gets more urgent when we start using these diagnoses in court, as the government has done in the trials of doctors accused of contributing to a patient’s overdose death.

      It’s here that the opinions of one of Szalavitz’s sources seem particularly troubling.

      Given the state of the science, then, should it be used in court? Ed Cheng, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and expert on scientific testimony, says, yes, noting that more research is still needed. “If we were to require studies and statistical assessment on every assertion, almost nothing would be able to be used in court. My view on this is that the question here is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” says Cheng. “It’s clear that the forensic sciences do not have as much of an empirical basis as we would like them to have. The question becomes how do we motivate them sufficiently to come up with the empirical basis that we want?”

      In the Schneider case, which entered jury deliberations on Wednesday, the defense team sought and failed to prevent the jury from hearing testimony that it believed did not have sufficient scientific foundations. But according to Cheng, it may be preferable to let the jury hear both sides of the scientific dispute and make up their own minds. “I myself have floated between the poles on this,” he says. “I’m currently more on the ‘Let the jury hear it’ side. I’m not convinced that good science and bad science is always cut and dried.”

      “Let the jury hear it” sounds great on its face. But there’s more to it than that. If the science linking a particular drug to a particular overdose isn’t established–if the scientific community is split over whether you can make that connection–then the jury shouldn’t hear it. (If nothing else, that would seem to establish reasonable doubt.)

      Yes, we do have an adversarial judicial system. But lay juries aren’t trained scientists. Most people don’t know what to look for when evaluating the veracity of some science-based claim. Get two scientific-sounding witnesses pitching the jury competing or mutually-exclusive theories, and the winner will more often be not who advocated the best science, but who was a better expert witness. Or more bluntly, who was a better salesman.

      We’ve seen this over and over again with bite mark testimony. Frauds like Michael West have sold crap science to juries for years, sometimes unopposed, but often opposed by more credible experts. Even now, with a solid consensus in the forensics community that you can’t “match” bite marks in skin to one person to the exclusion of everyone else, we still see appeals courts shoot down post-conviction petitions on the grounds that the defense already challenged the state’s expert at trial, and the jury found the prosecution’s witness more convincing. It doesn’t seem to matter that we now know the prosecution’s witness was spewing pseudo-science hokum.

      I think you could make a strong case that West was able to persuade juries because he didn’t sound scientific. I’ve read more than a few trial transcripts where West and the prosecutor would actually use an opposing expert’s credentials against him, contrasting him as a fancy out-of-town hired gun with a bunch of letters after his name with West, the local dentist just trying to do the right thing, helping put bad guys away with intuition, common sense, and some self-taught expertise. The scary thing is that when you see West in action, he sounds convincing, even when you know he’s a fraud.

      Of course, West is only one example (although he is one of the most egregious). I don’t know the best way to determine what science has reached enough of a consensus to be used in a courtroom, but leaving the decision to individual juries on a case-by-case basis seems like a bad idea. In the federal courts, and in much of the country, challenges to scientific evidence are currently resolved by the judge in what’s called a Daubert hearing. From my understanding, while those hearings have done a decent (but far from perfect) job keeping junk science out of civil cases, the process has been less successful at keeping it out of criminal cases.

      Skeptical as I am of blue ribbon commissions, this may be one area where we’re best off having an established, accredited panel of specialists set policy.
      Digg it | reddit | del.icio.us | Fark

      Comment by julian — January 25, 2012 @ 3:01 am

  4. It totally makes sense that the increase in O.D.s is due to the counting method. It goes along with silly facts like “1 out of 3 reckless drivers have marijuana in their system” (unstated: 1 out of 3 drivers in general have marijuana in their system).

    I’m not too sure about vetting the science placed before juries, junk science being in the eye of the beholder. It occurs to me that we could take a more conservative step first — rejigger the courtroom rules to stop excluding educated people from juries.

    Thanks for keeping writing in.

    Comment by paragardener — January 25, 2012 @ 3:13 pm


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