Is Caffeine a Controlled Substance?

Anyone who relies on a daily cup (or two) of coffee to get through the morning knows that caffeine is addictive. But is it addictive enough, and does it have the potential for abuse and pose enough negative effects that it should be considered a controlled substance? 

As of now, caffeine is not regulated as a controlled substance in the United States, but some argue that it should be. Here, we discuss controlled substances, how caffeine does (or rather, does not) fit into any of those categories, and what the federal government is currently doing to regulate it. 

What Are Controlled Substances?

Under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), the Federal Government classifies drugs into five categories based on a drug’s accepted medical use and its potential for abuse and dependency. Schedule I drugs, such as heroin, have a high potential for abuse, while Schedule V drugs, which include over-the-counter cough medicine with limited amounts of codeine, have the least potential for abuse. Drugs that fall somewhere in between are listed on Schedules II, III, or IV. 

Where does caffeine fit in here? At the moment, nowhere. While some medical professionals, state governments, and others have pushed for caffeine to be considered a controlled substance, it currently is not. That does not, however, mean that it is unregulated, as you will see below.

Side Effects of Caffeine Use 

Why would the government ever even consider classifying caffeine as a controlled substance? It is well-accepted (although not universally) that the amount of caffeine in your daily cup of coffee (about 100 milligrams) is not harmful and, in fact, might be beneficial. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is perfectly healthy for an adult to consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. (The American Academy of Pediatrics’ position is that there is no proven safe dose of caffeine for children.)

Caffeine consumption above the suggested amount, or in smaller doses for particularly sensitive individuals or children, can cause insomnia, nausea, anxiety, muscle tremors, and a fast heartbeat, among other symptoms. 

While those symptoms are not too alarming, just like with controlled substances, caffeine abuse can have more troubling effects. Seizures and even deaths have been observed in people who have rapidly consumed around 1.200 milligrams of caffeine (which equates to about 0.15 tablespoons of pure caffeine). That is what worries some proponents of classifying caffeine as a controlled substance.

Pure and Highly Concentrated Caffeine Products

Pure and highly concentrated caffeine products have the possibility of causing significant harm (including possible death), so the FDA has taken action to prevent consumers from being harmed by certain products that contain these high levels of caffeine. Most of these products are sold to the public and classified as “dietary supplements.” 

The FDA’s guidance states that dietary supplements containing pure or highly concentrated caffeine are considered unlawful when sold directly to consumers. While this does not place caffeine on a controlled substance schedule, it does impose penalties on the companies manufacturing and selling these products. It does not, however, make it illegal for consumers to purchase or use these products. 

How Might Caffeine Be Regulated Further?

If you are worried that the government is going to try to take away your daily coffee cup, don’t be. It is unlikely that small amounts of caffeine will become a controlled substance under the CSA. However, there are real concerns regarding the use of pure or highly concentrated caffeine in substances such as dietary supplements. The FDA has begun to regulate this industry and will likely continue to do so as new information comes to light, so we may be seeing caffeine on more such “illegal” or “controlled” lists in the future.