There's a common misconception that if you combine two drugs you'll get the best of both worlds. It's the same thinking that gave us the vodka & Red Bull, the spliff, or the club kids special known as XECK (xanax, ecstasy, crystal-meth and ketamine, ground up together and snorted). Fixing yourself a drug salad, however, typically results in an unpredictable, synergistic effect that is often greater than the sum of its parts. This is likely the case with mixing coffee and cannabis, an increasingly popular trend for marijuana companies in legalized states. In my home city of Denver, there are intense prohibitions against alcohol being combined with cannabis, either in products sold at dispensaries or any bar allowing pot to be consumed on their property, the idea being mixing the two can make you a danger to yourself and others. But there is no regulation for marijuana products infused with caffeine.
In fact, coffee houses are about to become the premier venue for cannabis consumption in Denver, after the city council banned any venue that sells alcohol from participating in the recently passed social use initiative. Unlike marijuana, caffeine is definitively shown to be chemically addictive, yet is used by 83 percent of America and carries virtually no stigma.
It's already common for people here to combine cannabis and coffee (I've heard it referred to as a "Colorado speedball"), either by pairing a joint with espresso, dropping a little THC butter in a cup of coffee, or picking up an infused edible or cup of coffee available at one of the seven hundred dispensaries in the state (more dispensaries than Starbucks!).
But little is known about how these two drugs get along inside our brains and bodies. Navigating the world of edibles can already be a harrowing and complex endeavor (just ask Maureen Dowd), requiring a lot of math and planning in order to avoid turning yourself into a disrobed maniac on the street corner shouting about agrarianism. Adding caffeine to the mix brings a whole new dimension to the experience, one that could get you higher than you intended.
So, in the interest of public service, I sampled a few of these java-ganja products myself, observing their effects on my cognitive and motor functions while trying to complete a variety of tasks.
These products vary greatly in caffeine to THC ratios, and naturally those differences have a big impact on the end result. But the one consistency I found in my (admittedly unscientific) experiments is: They kick in way faster than most products, and are significantly more intense.
There is some scientific evidence to back this up, though the neurological dynamics of how THC and caffeine dance in the brain are profoundly complex. Sergi Ferre, a neurobiologist at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, has co-authored one of the few studies on the subject, and says that he's found caffeine increases the psychostimulant effects of THC.
Ferre also says that regularly consuming caffeine with marijuana will increase the addictive effects of marijuana (though he notes the difference between "addiction" and "dependence," and is primarily talking about his subjects'—squirrel monkeys, in this case—desire for more THC when referring to "addictive effects").
Currently, physical dependence on marijuana has never been proven, and it's common for pro-pot activists to claim that caffeine is statistically more addictive than cannabis.
I'm a big fan of edibles, using them regularly during long-distance runs or just on a night out. Typically 10 mg of THC is a nice, quiet buzz for me, like the pleasantly warm phase after one or two cocktails, where you're still able to function but have a secret euphoria in your belly. So when I noticed that the "Espresso Buzz Bites" I'd just picked up were only 10 mg each, it seemed like a reasonable idea to pop one before engaging in a bit of public speaking.
A local bookstore was putting out an anthology of short stories from Denver authors, and I was invited to give a reading. The edible was a mind-blowingly delicious Belgian dark chocolate, infused with coffee extract and cannabis oil and topped off with a couple espresso beans. But it was much stronger than most 10 mg edibles I'd had, pistol-whipping my brain as I approached the microphone, turning me into a giggly, ADD-ridden mess. (Thankfully I was reading a comedy story, as my mouth was grinning violently like a flaming jack-o-lantern, and it just looked like I was laughing at my own jokes.)
My energy level plummeted only an hour later, likely due to the espresso edible containing less than 10 percent as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. Apparently that's enough to intensify the THC, but it left me with a warm-bath lethargy, which was pleasurable but kept me from being able to socialize. It would be a great product to eat at home or before seeing a movie, but not if anything is expected of you.
Canyon Cultivation's liquid product, called simply "The Coffee," was a whole different story. At 10 mg THC, it's the same amount of cannabis as the Espresso Buzz Bites, but has 110 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of one cup of coffee).
"Caffeine does get your digestion working, which ensures the THC gets processed faster, resulting in what some say is a harder-hitting THC buzz," says Timothy McMurray, chief operating officer for Canyon Cultivation (note: not a scientist). "For me, it is great on a Sunday morning when I am about to clean the garage or do some yard work. During the winter I have a cup before hitting the slopes."
As room-temperature (I probably should have refrigerated it) black coffee, it's not terribly appetizing, but I've never been one to care about the taste of edibles. Most of them are marketed by flavor, rarely categorized by the type of cannabis in it or how it's processed; this seems counterintuitive to me, since you taste the product for mere seconds and experience its psychoactive effects for hours.
Anyway, The Coffee took hold quickly, giving me a familiar euphoria tinged with a caffeine-like anxiety. I tried to work on a bit of writing, but the two drugs were warring within my consciousness, the cannabis scattering my thoughts into an existentialist fog ("what are 'sentences' anyway, man?") while the caffeine screamed a drill-sergeant urgency into me, demanding I get this work done now.
I've done plenty of writing under the influence of cannabis and coffee separately, but trying to work with both of them is like having two stereos in the room playing different music at the same time.
"Caffeine enhances the cognitive and memory impairments of THC," Ferre told me, which would explain why the essay I was writing devolved into a kaleidoscopic rant of unrelated facts and emotional tangents.
While The Coffee may not be great for anything intellectual, it was a blast to go running on. (This time I mixed it with ice and soy milk, which was quite tasty.) I've been eating 20 mg edibles before long distance runs for three years now (it's an increasingly popular trend for athletes), and am extremely picky about what products I use. Many edibles are loaded with sugar and use poor-quality cannabis trim in their extracts (the pot equivalent of cheap hot dogs made from pig scraps), which can cause spikes and dips in energy, leaving you tired and unmotivated halfway through a run.
The 110 mg of caffeine in The Coffee gave me a steady energy, intensifying the 10 mg of THC enough to feel the cheery weightlessness I usually get when running on 20 mg of THC. What aimed to be a casual four or five mile run ended up being seven.
Marijuana is currently a banned substance for athletes operating under the World Anti-Doping Agency, so it would be difficult for cannabis coffee products to be marketed to athletes, particularly if they're believed to be more addictive than regular marijuana products. Ferre's study was done with the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and he expresses concern about a potential increase of addiction to marijuana in people who regularly mix it with caffeine. If it can be proven that mixing pot with coffee makes it more addictive (and more dangerous), there could be a push for more regulation against these products, or a ban on them in newly legalized states.
Ultimately, marijuana and coffee serve two totally different purposes: one functioning as a wake-up stimulant in preparation for the workday, and the other a post-work ritual intended to unwind a stressed brain. I understand some people drink coffee at night, and plenty of people get high in the morning, but for the most part society has placed them at opposite ends of the day for a reason.
Currently, there isn't enough human-trial research on the subject to definitively say what's going on when we combine caffeine and THC (as is the case with many marijuana issues), but the possibility that caffeine intensifies the potency of the product, not to mention the increase in heart-rate caused by both drugs, does justify some added scrutiny to these products, and perhaps new labeling requirements that inform consumers about the caffeine to THC ratios in what they just bought.
I'll likely keep my refrigerator stocked with a few of these herbal brews for certain occasions, but for the most part will continue to keep my uppers and downers at opposite ends of the clock.