Coffee is a widespread hot beverage and also an additive in some foodstuffs. Its high prevalence is possible because of several factors, such as its common international availability and affordability, the absence of alcohol in the raw coffee, and the ease with which the beverage is prepared. In terms of culture, it does not attract the same censure as some other substances. For example, societies which do not consume alcohol may consume substantial amounts of coffee. Anybody who traditionally makes tea can also make coffee. And then there are also other recipes in which coffee is used, such as chocolate or sweets.

The production of raw coffee does not require any sophisticated technology. Once the beans have been harvested, they are roasted and then ground into the powder that is sold in the shops. Some people like to buy the beans and grind them at home. Mass-produced commercial coffees sometimes have other things added to them, like chicory. Similar to fine wines, there are many different varieties of coffee in the world and sampling them is a potential marketing tactic of the coffee industry, either in the sale of the raw product or menus in coffee shops.

However, it is important to note the effect that coffee has on the human body. The active substance in coffee is caffeine. Caffeine has been isolated by modern science and is used in other products these days, such as energy drinks, pain killers and pep tonics/tablets. The manufacture of products whose main ingredient is caffeine is a relatively modern exercise, but these products are readily available to the general public and so it therefore makes sense to spend some time discussing caffeine and its use.

The traditional description of caffeine or justification for its use is that it keeps you awake and makes you sharper mentally. This makes it attractive to anyone who works long hours requiring sustained concentration. Office workers may be heavy coffee drinkers, and so may students who try to study through the night. Such people may also expand their consumption of caffeine beyond coffee to the other products, and there is then the potential to exceed the recommended dose. These people are not using caffeine as part of their social activities or according to any cultural mandate, or even for the purpose of personal enjoyment. They are using it for its psychoactive properties.

This type of use of a substance is problematic, due to the way in which the human body processes substances. The body processes them on the basis of its own tolerance level to a specific substance. If a substance alters the metabolism, the body's tolerance to that substance will increase with use (unless the substance causes organ or other damage which impedes tolerance), so that the substance will have less of an effect over time. Therefore, the longer you use a substance, the more of it you need to use to have the same effect. This applies to many substances and even some activities, not only drugs. Medical doctors (medications), drugs addicts (street drugs), drag racers (vehicle speed) and music DJs (music volume) are all affected by this principle. Someone who drinks coffee to improve mental performance may find that they need to drink progressively more of it, and yet eventually they are not performing any better in their job or their studies if they do.

It is therefore not sensationalist to describe caffeine as a drug. Its usage pattern resembles that of other drugs – routine and daily, with increasing doses – and the motive for its use is also the same – the user experiences its psychoactive properties as attractive. Its relatively lower price and the fact that it does not cause severe physical damage as other drugs do does not make it any less a drug, and neither does the fact that it is legally sold. Cigarettes and alcohol are also legally available, but nicotine is easy to become addicted to and there are many thousands of alcoholics in South Africa.

The key difference between legal substances like caffeine and alcohol and illegal substances like street drugs is that the former can be used to a certain extent in a responsible and non-damaging way. You have to drink several liters of coffee to become intoxicated on caffeine (do not experiment with coffee in this way at home – excessive coffee drinking can irreversibly damage your liver), while alcohol can be consumed without the user getting drunk. There are also substances like codeine (cough medicine) and morphine (pain relief) which have established medical roles. But these substances remain psychoactive and the potential for addiction or, at least, inappropriate use is always there.

Any substance that produces a detectable physical and/or psychoactive effect in the user has the potential to become the focus of an addiction. Even if the dose is extremely small, use of the substance may still constitute an addiction, depending on the person's reason for using the substance and how able they are to stop using it. Does the absence of the substance cause them any stress? If it does cause them any stress (with the emphasis on the any), they are addicted to it, since they have a psychological dependency on it. It may even be something like a single cup of coffee in the morning or one aspirin tablet. An adverse physical response to the absence of the substance shows that there is a physiological dependency, in that the body has adapted to having the substance in its metabolism.

No addictive substance occurs naturally in the human body (and some drugs do not occur anywhere in nature either), so a metabolism that has a dependency on such a substance has been warped over time and needs to be rectified. The easiest way of bringing about this rectification is to allow the metabolism to correct itself, which it usually will in the absence of the substance, unless the substance has done permanent damage to the body. In order to give the metabolism the opportunity to recover, one should therefore stop using the substance entirely.


Caffeine is therefore similar to other drugs and deserves to be labeled as one, and an addiction to caffeine is a risk for anyone who uses it for its psychoactive properties.

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