Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton Moskowitz

"Ah, that reech ah-rom-ah! That full bawdied flay-vorrrrr!"
I was doing my best to imitate Mrs. Olsen, the Folger's lady. But one look across the small table convinced me I should give it up. The King of Rational Thought's face registered one of those kind, tolerant expressions usually reserved for three-year-olds who are trying to show off. I attempted to save face.
"Well, at least the coffee's good," I said.
"You're right about that," he replied with a smile.
We had just started talking about my business when the background radio, which normally envelops this hole-in-the-wall espresso bar with light rock, interrupted our discussion with a news report of a big drug bust in Seattle. Two youth gangs had been implicated, said the announcer, and 50 pounds of cocaine had been seized.
"Interesting," said the King of Rational Thought.
"What is?" I asked.
"I'll show you," he replied. "Tell me what I'm thinking of. It's a white powder. A small diluted amount of it will make you high. A larger amount will kill you."
"Sounds like cocaine to me," I offered.
"Actually, I was thinking of something else," he said. "You're drinking it."
I spluttered my espresso. "What do you mean, I'm drinking it?"
"I'm talking about caffeine. It's a white crystalline substance. In small diluted amounts - as we find in coffee - it can give you a boost, a lift, a high. If you actually had the powder here and ate a bunch of it, it would probably kill you. I understand that in its raw form, it's highly toxic."
"I don't see your point."
"Tell me what the difference is between what we're sipping here and cocaine," he said quietly. "Both are drugs. Both are a white powder. Both make you high in small doses. Both can kill you in large doses. Yet there is one giant difference. We have domesticated one and made it a part of everyday life. The other we've outlawed."
I wasn't sure what to say. I couldn't imagine he was in favor of cocaine use.
"We have a very irrational societal policy about drugs," he continued. "We pick and choose, deciding this one's OK, but that one's bad. Look at gourmet coffee. We have practically elevated caffeine ingestion to an art form. Don't you find it just a bit ironic that the DEA agents who are spending your tax money tracking down drug smugglers may be stoking up on a double espresso to start their day?"
"But cocaine can really wreck people's lives," I protested. "Doesn't it make sense to outlaw such dangerous substances?"
He took a sip of his black brew. "Don't misunderstand me. I'm not advocating snorting cocaine or anything like it. But caffeine could also wreck people's lives if it were made available in a concentrated form. Diluted as we get it in coffee, it just gives people mild symptoms."
He smiled. "You know. The shakes, nervous sweats, heart palpitations. And you can get great headaches on withdrawal. Incidentally, did you know that cocaine used to be a key ingredient in Coca-Cola?"
My head was spinning. And not from the coffee. "Aw, come on-"
He held up his hand. "Scout's honor. Where do you think the name 'Coca-Cola' came from?"
Coca-Cola? I couldn't believe it. But the King of Rational Thought was not one to make such stuff up. I suddenly wondered if my whole outlook on drugs was another area of my life I'd never considered rationally.
"The key," he went on, "is quantity. We live with many substances that are safe in small quantities, yet may be deadly in larger doses. Sugar, salt, alcohol, and sleeping pills are all examples. I understand that small, supervised amounts of cocaine have important medical uses. So why should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Often the issue is not the substance per se, but the quantity of the substance. Perhaps our society would be better off if we focused on that, instead of trying to make cocaine itself the villain."
The waiter came by. "Can I get you another?" he asked, referring to my empty cup.
I looked up, thought about our conversation for a moment, then replied.
"Uh, no thanks. One's enough."