Cannabis and coffee avoid union in the eyes of the law, but have been coupled for decades. In Amsterdam, it’s coffee shops that have sold cannabis since the ’70s. In Seattle, we call the infusion a Hippie Speedball. In the months after Washington Initiative 502 officially legalized recreational cannabis, a small trendy Chinatown headshop began innocuously serving THC-infused buttered coffee on sleepy Saturday mornings. Before long, industry professionals began crowding the storefront to the spinning hip-hop tunes of a DJ — and then cannabis and coffee disappeared in smoke. I still treasure those weekend mornings spent strolling through nearby Hing Hay park, playing chess with locals and sipping coffee, baked under a peeking sun.
While groundbreaking research is being performed all over the world, cannabis and its combination with coffee remain a bigger societal phenomenon than an academic concern. Despite tacit interest from big companies like Coca Cola, public funding for the hippie speedball remains meager.
The small pool of existing studies on caffeine and cannabis suggest vast biological interactivity. Research on cannabis and coffee is extremely underdeveloped and primarily pre-clinical, so take it with a grain of sugar.
Introducing the Comedy of Cannabinoids and Caffeine
THC is just one of the hundreds of cannabinoids within cannabis. The human body houses millions of sensitive receptors within an internal endocannabinoid system, which cannabinoids orchestrate like a maestro on the church organ. THC primarily affects a grouping of sensors collectively referred to as CB1 receptors which regulate central nervous system functions, including motor skills, memory, and cognition.
Caffeine affects a different set of receptors in the body called A1 (Adenosine) receptors. One of the major neurological effects of caffeine is antagonizing (definition: reducing overall effect due to the opposing effects of different chemical groups) the A1 receptors. Normally, A1 receptors enforce the bodily response to fatigue, which is to get sleepy. When caffeine antagonizes A1 receptors, the body registers coffee’s famous buzz instead of fatigue.
Caffeine and THC Modulate ADHD Behaviors: Hyperactivity, Impulsivity, and Inattention
In 2019 a Brazilian study lead by Dr. Douglas Leffa investigated cannabinoids and ADHD and discovered A1 and CB1 receptors working in conjunction to regulate subjects’ impulsivity. The study found that mice which ingested THC preferred immediate gratification over larger, delayed rewards. Assuming the reward was food, it would seem that science has confirmed the munchies — but we already knew about that.
Results became interesting when mice were treated with an acute dosage of caffeine and subsequently lost their preference for immediate gratification over delayed rewards. These results signify that a jolt of caffeine might negate some of the THC-caused disfunction in the brain’s reward system. As is explored later, however, the brain responds differently (and unexpectedly) to different amounts of both caffeine and THC. Unfortunately for coffee-enthusiasts packing a bowl right now, the study also found that subjects treated with chronic levels of caffeine would most likely seek immediate gratification over delayed but larger rewards.
Chronic Caffeine Consumption Dulls the THC High
According to this 2018 clinical study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, chronic coffee consumption antagonizes both AB1 and CB1 receptors. Antagonized CB1 receptors are less sensitive to THC. Of the study’s 79 participants drinking 4-8 cups/day for an entire month, THC had about 1/3 of the effect observed in the control population. THC still activates CB1 but higher doses produce a smaller effect. In this study and the 2019 Leffa study, chronic coffee consumption is found to conflict with the body’s normal metabolizing of THC.
Caffeine and Microdosing THC (1mg) Disrupts Cognitive Function
The 2011 Panlilio Study was one of the first neurological studies of THC and caffeine. Dr. Panlilio analyzed the Hippocampus to chart neurological interplay between CB1 cannabinoid and A1 adenosine receptors. The brain’s Hippocampus helps regulate learning and memory, among other basic cognitive functions.
The Panlilio study concluded that caffeine did not counteract memory deficits induced by THC, and that, in one observed micro-dosing, even compounds with THC to cause amplified deficits in performance and memory. Essentially, according to this early study, THC is not meant for coffee.
The CBD-Coffee Craze
A 2019 study out of Spain confirms the long-suspected suspicion that CBD mitigates undesirable effects of THC. It is, perhaps, with too much haste that THC was isolated and commercialized. Meanwhile, a developing research consensus warns against the current trend of super-boosting THC in flower and concentrates.
2019 is becoming a transformative year for cannabidiol. After selling just over $300 million in 2018, CBD is expected to grow into a $22 billion international market by 2025. Scientists continue developing the growing list of its curative effects.
Founder of YuniBox, Stephen Woolfolk-Bonner, spoke with WikiLeaf about the growing market opportunity and benefits of CBD-infused coffee. Mr. WB explained that the upswell of CBD product offerings reflects a societal recognition of the efficacy of holistic treatment and wellness-based healing. WB goes on, saying “80% of people have heard of CBD, 20% have used it, and 7% are regular users… CBD is natural fit for coffee, as it provides a splendid sense of focus and relaxation that smooths out the buzzing high and crashing low of caffeination.” The market will take 10-15 years to mature, says WB, but “legalization (of CBD) is imminent” and will mark an “explosion of awareness” and interest in cannabinoid-infused wellness products.
The rest of the world has historically outproduced the United States in cannabis research due to its federal status as a Schedule I drug. In January of 2019, the World Expert Committee on Drug Dependence wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations recommending a change in drug policy restricting THC. Partially as a result, the European Union (EU) is moving toward overarching legal changes allowing medical cannabis. In the United States, a similar green wave seems to be washing over the states and through US Congress. Worldwide legalization will open public and private research opportunities and drive the innovation of new products including, at the top of the list, coffee infused with cannabinoids.