Coca, Cola, and Cannabis: Psychoactive Drugs as Beverages

4 things to know about the past, present, and future of marijuana-infused drinks

Posted Oct 01, 2018

Public domain
Advertisement for Coca-Cola, circa 1890s
Source: Public domain

Will America soon be chugging marijuana-infused beverages as part of our daily routine?

Recent news headlines revealing that the mega-beverage company Coca-Cola has been in “serious talks” with Aurora Cannabis Inc., one of the biggest cannabis producers in Canada, about partnering to bring cannabis-infused beverages to the mass market suggest that it's possible. Indeed, from the perspectives of both herb aficionados and financial investors, such a partnership portends a future that looks increasingly green.

But let’s put this in context by considering 4 things to know about how cannabis-infused beverages fit into America's longstanding affinity for legal, liquid drugs:
 

1. Coca-Cola is already, and has always been, a drug in a can.

You may have already heard the urban legend that the original Coca-Cola product, introduced in 1886, contained cocaine. Turns out that’s 100% true. So-named because it contained extracts from coca and cola plants, the early version of the beverage included small amounts of both cocaine and caffeine.

This isn’t as radical as it sounds, even for its time. In the late 1880s, other cocaine-containing beverages were already available outside the US, such as Vin Mariani, a coca wine, and Kola Coca, a distilled liquor still sold in Spain under the name Nuez de Kola Coca. Here in the US, cocaine was already being manufactured and sold in 1885 by the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis as a kind of cure-all tonic, marketed as a medicine that could “make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, free the victims of alcohol and opium habit from their bondage, and… render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” It was available in a variety of preparations including a liquid drink (“Coca Cordial”), as well as a powder, in cigarettes, and even packaged together as an “injection kit” containing vials and large hypodermic needle.

Although cocaine was phased out as an ingredient at the turn of the century with increasing concern about the public health perils of “cocainism,” efforts by the US government to also remove caffeine due to its status as a “habit-forming” and “deleterious” substance were successfully opposed by the Coca-Cola company. Along with tea and coffee, caffeinated beverages have been a staple of the US diet ever since, with Coca-Cola establishing itself as the largest and most successful beverage company in the world. The existence of various iterations of caffeine-free Coke and the “Just For The Taste of It” ad campaign aside, consumers within a caffeine culture over the years have far preferred the “real thing.”

2. Cannabis-infused beverages aren’t new.

Cannabis-infused beverages, such as the milk-based drink Bhang, have been consumed by human beings for thousands of years. Alongside cocaine, cannabis tinctures were widely available in the US in the late 1800s, with several preparations produced by pharmaceutical companies like Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, and Abbot Laboratories before being all but outlawed through subsequent legislation in the early 1900s. With the modern state-by-state re-legalization of marijuana for either medicinal or recreational use (or both) over the past two decades, marijuana-containing food products (aka “edibles”) are now available for sale in many states. The variety of edibles now extends well beyond the familiar home-cooked pot-brownie baked goods of yore to include newer commercially packaged products that deliberately resemble popular brands of candy (e.g. chocolate bars, lollipops, gummy bears, etc.) and “soda pop.” Marijuana-containing sodas marketed under names like Canna Cola, Orange Kush, and Doc Week (resembling Coke, Orange Crush, and Dr. Pepper) have been around at least as far back as 2011. Other cannabis-infused beverages include coffee and non-alcoholic beer are now widely available as well in states where it is legal.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Two liquid marijuana shots side by side, Will Shenton (2016)
Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

As consumers are increasingly abandoning sodas in favor of other types of beverages offering more caffeine or less sugar, companies like Coca-Cola have been desperate for ways to rebound from declining sales. No doubt Coca-Cola has been carefully eyeing the success of existing cannabis beverages and considering whether they might be just what’s needed to jolt the slumping soda market. Anticipating this trend, Constellation Brands, the maker of Corona beer, already bought a 10% stake in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth last year. As public acceptance of cannabis continues to rise along with a decline in perceived risk, cashing in on cannabis-containing beverages may very well be the next big thing in the beverage industry.

3. Move over THC, make way for CBD.

The cannabis plant contains hundreds of chemical constituents called "phytocannabinoids." Of these, by far the most well-studied are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Although much still needs to be learned about the effects of these drugs on the human body, the euphoric and addictive effects of using marijuana are usually attributed to THC. CBD is less well understood but appears to oppose some of the effects of THC with little in the way of any intoxicating effects itself. Although CBD has been all but bred out of marijuana plants for the recreational consumer market over the past several decades, it is now emerging as a popular constituent or a standalone product based on its potential medicinal properties with real health benefits (e.g. see my previous blog post "Cannabis for Kids: Can Marijuana Treat Childhood Seizures?").

Medical marijuana dispensaries and stores that sell cannabis products in states where it’s legal are now likely to stock “pure” CBD products (usually in the form of CBD oil) that are increasingly sought-after by a new kind of cannabis consumer. Those purchasing pure CBD products aren’t so much looking to get high as they are hoping to supplement a healthy lifestyle, the way one might by taking fish oil or buying gluten-free products. [Of concern, it should be noted that several studies have found that product labeling of CBD can be wildly inaccurate, with some products containing no CBD at all1-3].

Although cannabis edibles have been burgeoning part of the legal marijuana market, cannabis-infused beverages containing THC have occupied a small and declining part of the overall cannabis market share. However, CBD-containing beverages are a more recent, emerging trend and a new direction for the marijuana industry, with some speculating that CBD-containing beverages will occupy a larger mainstream niche as a wellness product, like “the new calcium or vitamin C.” In keeping with this view of CBD having greater potential for mainstream acceptance, Coca-Cola is said to be considering a move into CBD- as opposed to THC-containing beverages. That said, such a move would still be risky so long as the FDA continues to designate cannabis (and THC and CBD with it) a Schedule I drug and so long as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. It may yet be a long time before we see any cannabis-infused beverages at our local grocery store.

4. “Can’t beat the feeling!”

The success of Coca-Cola through the years, with its current availability in nearly every corner of the populated globe, can be attributed to several factors. Unquestionably, people like its taste and the bubbly bite of its carbonation. Coupled with an ad campaign that has created one of the most successful and iconic brands in history, all but brainwashing us in the process, it’s no coincidence that caffeine has been a key ingredient of Coca-Cola from the start. “Soft drinks” are so-named to contrast them with “hard” alcoholic beverages, but there’s little doubt that our reliance on coffee, tea, or a Coke to make it through the day has something to do with the fact that caffeine is a psychostimulant and potentially addictive drug.

In this “soft” sense, America is a drug-addicted culture. Perhaps that’s true of the world at large. Human beings ingest “psychoactive” drugs to modulate how we feel all the time, whether it’s coffee in the morning, alcohol at night, or a slice of chocolate cake (containing cocoa and sugar, both of which are psychoactive substances) whenever the impulse strikes. Sometimes we combine “uppers” and “downers” to feel just right, whether in the form of a cocaine-laced marijuana joint, a cigarette while drinking alcohol, or an alcoholic ”energy” drink all in the same bottle.

As the beverage industry searches for the next cash cow, don’t be surprised if one day a new drink combining caffeine together with THC or CBD takes the world by storm. Companies like Coca-Cola wouldn’t be sniffing out cannabis partners if they didn’t think that might very well happen.
 

References

1. Vandrey R, Raber JC, Raber ME, et al. Cannabinoid dose and label accuracy in edible medical cannabis products. JAMA 2015; 313:2491-2492.

2. Ruth AC, Gryniewicz-Ruzicka CM, Trehy ML, et al. Consistency of label claims of internet-purchased hemp oil and cannabis products as determined using IMS and LC-MS: A marketplace study. Journal of Regulatory Science 2016; 3:1-6.

3. Bonn-Miller MO, Loflin MJE, Thomas BF, et al. Labeling accuracy of cannabidiol extracts sold online. JAMA 2017; 318:1708-1709.