Monday, August 13, 2007

What Are Drugs?

Drugs are not new. Man has been experimenting with them for thousands of years for escapism and fun as well as for healing purposes, spiritual enlightenment and ritualistic ceremonies. People today are looking for exactly the same form of escape, but now there's a '90s twist with new refinements of time-honoured, mind-altering chemicals. Nowadays when most people use the word "drug" they're thinking of illegal substances like cannabis, cocaine, crack or acid. Some use the word "poisons" to describe illegal drugs in order to demonize them but then alcohol, aspirin and nicotine are poisons too. Even water "poisons" the body when drunk to excess.

Most young people see occasional drug use in the same way as alcohol - as part of normal life. Most describe it as something that makes them feel good and gets rid of inhibitions. In the main they're as
responsible about drugs as they are about alcohol.

So, how did drugs become street drugs?

The traditional use of the word "drug" refers to substances that are taken for medicinal reasons. In fact it wasn't until the 19th century that a distinction began to grow between "medical" and "recreational" drug use. Some medicines prescribed by doctors, for example, barbiturates and tranquillizers, are just as harmful and/or addictive as some of the illegal street drugs and indeed find their way onto the streets. Various plants and household substances are also being tucked under the drugs umbrella if they're used in certain ways. A common wild fungus called the Liberty Cap (one of the "magic mushrooms") contains a chemical that causes hallucinations when eaten, and butane gas lighter refills and paint thinners give a quick, cheap, but dangerous buzz when sniffed. Most illegal street drugs started life in the laboratory as legitimate, respectable medicines; the medical profession developed them as possible remedies for various conditions:

  • ecstasy started life as an appetite suppressant
  • LSD (acid) was discovered by mistake by a Swiss chemist in 1943
  • it was hoped that heroin would prove to be a powerful non-addictive painkiller when it was discovered in 1874.

Legal drug use

You don't have to use the so-called "street" drugs in order to be a drug user. Tea drinkers and smokers are drug users too. Alcohol, the caffeine in tea and coffee and the nicotine in cigarettes are all drugs - and they're legal. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes cause far more deaths than the use of illegal drugs. In the UK every year there are around 120,000 smoking-related deaths and about 25,000 deaths attributable to alcohol (including the innocent victims of road traffic accidents that are caused by drink-driving), whereas there are probably under 2000 deaths a year attributable to the misuse of all types of illegal drugs.

Origins in plant life
Chemical refinement of plants produces some powerful drugs. Even though they have a "natural" source, it doesn't mean they're not harmful:

  • heroin is one of a group of drugs from the opium poppy; this group includes painkillers such as morphine and codeine
  • cocaine comes from the coca plant, and was used as an anaesthetic in ear, nose and throat surgery
  • LSD (acid) comes from a fungus that grows on rye grasses
  • ecstasy is a synthetic compound modelled on a substance found in nutmeg and oil of sassafras.

Drugs are pulled as well as pushed - in other words, people actively look for them because they WANT to try them. 1 in 10 London schoolchildren push drugs to their friends.


Know the form

Drugs come in many guises - from the obvious pill and powder to liquids, resins and household solvents.

Why do people take drugs?

Whether people are using fire, drums, chanting, flickering lights or music, their aims are the same - to escape feelings of isolation, and to feel a sense of unity with everything and everyone around them. The appeal of drugs has always been that they change the way people feel and how they perceive the world around them. People take drugs to:

  • have fun and feel happy
  • loosen up and be free of inhibitions
  • feel confident and good about themselves
  • be accepted by a group of friends
  • feel sociable and enjoy people more
  • forget ordinary life and relieve boredom
  • forget problems and escape from worries
  • enjoy music more
  • enjoy dancing more
  • stay up all night
  • experiment and feel the thrill
  • be rebellious
  • relax and chill out
  • reduce the effects of other drugs
  • speed up the effects of other drugs
  • ease "coming down"
  • get some sleep.

How long have drugs been around?

  • It's a safe bet that ancient man began to smoke plants as soon as he'd discovered fire; and long before the invention of modern mind-altering chemicals like acid and ecstasy, he'd certainly discovered some natural alternatives of his own. Historical evidence suggests that people have been using cannabis for 8000 years; it was used by many early civilizations as a medicine for anything from anxiety to digestive problems, even period pains. Ancient Sumerian texts (from the Middle East) hailed the opium poppy as a "joy plant" 6000 years ago.
  • The chewing of coca leaves by natives of South America dates back to at least 2500 BC. Bolivians still use coca leaves as a remedy for altitude sickness.
  • Mescaline (from a Mexican cactus plant) and magic mushrooms - both of which can be hallucinogenic - were used thousands of years ago in an attempt to raise the consciousness and spark off some kind of cosmic "inner journey". Both substances are as central to mystical tribal rituals as ecstasy is to the rave experience.

So, what's the problem?

A substance that's sufficiently active to change your brain chemistry, so that your perception is altered and you see the world differently, is bound to have serious after-effects. Everyone knows about the hangover after drinking alcohol. But people who drink alcohol are prepared to go for the short-term thrill and suffer the longer-term after-effects - that's the trade off. Other drugs are no different, they all trade an immediate high for a downer some time later.


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