Any substance that chemically alters the functioning of the brain or nervous system is a drug. A psychoactive drug, also known as a psychotropic drug, is a chemical substance that affects consciousness, mood, perception, and/or behavior. Such drugs are often used to treat various forms of mental illness—including anxiety or bipolar disorders, depression, and paranoia— as well as to assist people in ending their addiction or overdependence on alcohol or other drugs. Other medicinal uses are in anesthesia, as painkillers, or as a prescribed stimulant to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) or help curb one’s appetite. In addition, throughout human history people worldwide have used psychoactive drugs, especially hallucinogens, as part of their religious practices. Native Americans are one such group, and in the United States they alone may legally cultivate and use the hallucinogen peyote.
Depending on the substance, ingestion of a psychoactive drug can be accomplished orally (drinking an alcoholic or caffeine beverage; chewing [such as coca leaves]; or digesting [such as psychedelic mushrooms]; swallowing a capsule, pill, powder, or tablet) or through inhalation, injection, rectal suppository, or smoking. Though varying in intensity and impact, all psychoactive drugs have some specific effect on one or more neuroreceptors or neurotransmitters in the brain. That temporary effect is the targeted goal, whether medical or recreational. Some drugs are more addictive and dangerous than others. One danger is that drug abuse and long-term exposure to many psychoactive drugs may lead to desensitization or tolerance, encouraging the user to increased usage, then addiction, brain or other physical damage, even death.
The misuse of psychoactive drugs for recreational use is what constitutes a social problem. Moderate recreational use of some drugs—such as alcohol, caffeine, and, some would even argue, marijuana—does not pose as great a threat as experimenting with such addictive drugs as cocaine, crack, and heroin, or club drugs (synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, Rohypnol, GHD, and ketamine). These drugs are neurotoxic; they damage brain cells in parts of the brain critical to thought and memory. Increasing the dangers to one’s health is multiple drug use, most commonly the mixture of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that in 2006 an estimated 20.4 million Americans (8.3 percent of the population) ages 12 or older were current (past month) illicit drug users, 125 million (50.9 percent) were current drinkers of alcohol, and 72.9 million (29.6 percent) were users of a tobacco product. With such extensive use, perhaps it is not surprising that the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reported that in the same year more than 1.4 million visits to hospital emergency departments involved drug misuse or abuse in 2005.
- Goode, Erich. 2007. Drugs and American Society. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Inaba, Daniel and William E. Cohen. 2007. Uppers, Downers, and All Arounders: Physical and Mental Effects of Psychoactive Drugs. 6th ed. Ashland, OR: CNS Publications.
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