Drugs in Society

On the one hand, we tell our young people not to take psychoactive drugs and to keep away from people who are selling drugs. On the other hand, doctors and others are constantly encouraging us to take psychoactive drugs produced by the pharmaceutical industry—some of which are addictive—for a variety of conditions. (1,109 words)

People have been taking psychoactive drugs to change their state of consciousness for thousands of years. Man has discovered psychoactive drugs serendipitously, has cultivated them deliberately, and has been producing them in laboratories and even in suburban homes [1, 2].

Many people consider that only a minority take psychoactive drugs. However, in his excellent book Living with Drugs [2], Michael Gossop points out that drug taking is:

‘… almost a universal phenomenon, and in the statistical sense of the term it is the person who does not take drugs that is abnormal.’

While some people might react strongly to the idea that they are a ‘drug taker’, drugs come in various forms other than illegal substances such as heroin and cocaine. Legal substances include nicotine in cigarettes, alcohol, and various prescription drugs used for problems such as sleeplessness, depression and anxiety. Even tea and coffee contain a drug—caffeine.

So what is a psychoactive drug? The World Health Organisation defines a drug as:

‘… any chemical entity or mixture of entities, other than those required for the maintenance of normal health (food), the administration of which alters biological function and possibly structure.’

A psychoactive drug is a drug that affects the brain to produce alterations in mood, thinking, perception and behaviour.

The positive effects of psychoactive drugs are the pleasurable mood states they induce and their ability to reduce negative mood states such as anxiety and depression. However, psychoactive drugs may also produce negative effects, such as the paranoia and delusions caused by excessive use of amphetamine.

Society has clung to the notion that some psychoactive drugs we use are ‘good’, whereas others are ‘bad’. Heroin is considered a ‘bad drug’, and heroin users are often classed as deviant or abnormal. The situation is complicated though, because heroin—known as diacetylmorphine or diamorphine—is commonly used for pain control in hospitals.

Tea and coffee are ‘good drugs’—although most people do not even consider them as drugs. Alcohol has commonly been considered a ‘good’ drug, although we have become increasingly aware of the risks associated with its misuse. Tobacco shifted from being a ‘good’ drug to a ‘bad’ drug.

Librium and Valium, which can be obtained on prescription to alleviate anxiety states, are considered ‘good drugs’. This situation is complicated though, because these same drugs become ‘bad’ drugs if used by people who also take heroin or amphetamine. Librium and Valium are also known to be highly addictive and can produce severe withdrawal symptoms, despite being prescribed by medical practitioners.

Amphetamine and methylphenidate are stimulant drugs with a very similar chemical structure. They are classed as Schedule II controlled drugs under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances and are therefore ‘bad’ drugs [3]. However, methylphenidate, sold under the trade name Ritalin, is frequently prescribed to children to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and adults. [4]

The ‘good/bad’ drug distinction sometimes becomes synonymous with ‘safe/dangerous’. Society would have us believe that good drugs are all safe, or at least relatively safe, whereas bad drugs produce negative effects and are not safe. However, as Michael Gossop points out [2], it is here that society has problems, because:

‘… scientific questions about the actual effects of a particular drug become entangled with issues of person morality and subjective beliefs’.

It is important to note that the ‘good/bad’ and ‘safe/dangerous’ classifications have varied over time, and from culture to culture. Some drugs that are illegal today were commonly used in the past legally, often for medicinal purposes. Also, some drugs deemed illegal in Western society are used for religious purposes in other cultures.

It also needs to be emphasised that the ‘safe/dangerous’ distinction does not hold up to scrutiny. Many more people die, either directly or indirectly, as a result of using tobacco, alcohol or prescription drugs then all illegal drugs combined.

Throughout history, societies have developed laws to regulate or control the use of certain drugs. One would like to believe that these laws have developed objectively, in an attempt to reduce the health and social problems caused by drugs. However, a closer look reveals a more complicated picture—ideological, political and economic interests play a major role. [I’ll look at the regulation and control of certain drugs in future articles.]

People in society today have a set of attitudes towards drug and drug taking that are often shaped by the popular media. As Michael Gossop points out [2]:

‘… the term ‘drug taker’ is used as a condemnation, as a way of identifying someone who is involved in a strange and deviant way of behaviour. There is a continuing reluctance to face up to the fact that drugs and drug takers are part of everyday life.’

We live in an inconsistent society. On the one hand, we tell our young people not to take psychoactive drugs and to keep away from people who are selling drugs. On the other hand, doctors and others are constantly encouraging us to take psychoactive drugs produced by the pharmaceutical industry—some of which are addictive—for a variety of conditions. Moreover, while we tell young people that certain illegal drugs are dangerous for their health, we ignore to a large extent the bad effects that alcohol has on health.

Psychoactive drugs have always been part of life—and they will always be present. Problems arising from drug and alcohol use are not going to go away. Society needs to recognise the problems caused by drugs and alcohol, and deal with them in an honest, realistic and open way. We also need to recognise that many problems caused by drugs are intimately related to other factors, such as trauma, poverty and social exclusion. Society needs to address these problems.

[1] Matters of Substance—Drugs: Is Legalization the Right Answer – or the Wrong Question? Griffith Edwards, Penguin, 2005.
[2] Living With Drugs, Michael Gossop, Routledge, 7th Edition, 2013.
[3] In the United Kingdom, methylphenidate is a controlled ‘Class B’ substance. Possession without prescription carries a sentence of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both; supplying methylphenidate (without a prescription) incurs a sentence of 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.
[4] Many experts have challenged the idea that ADHD is a real condition. For one of many examples of relevant articles, see The ADHD Diagnosis is a War of Semantics, Waged on Children by Michael W Corrigan, 2014.

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