What is a Drug?

April 10th, 2010

There is evidence that drugs, or mood-altering substances, have always been a part of human culture, since at least the Old Stone Age. There seems to be a human need for mood-altering substances. Throughout recorded history they have served a sacramental function, a medical function, a celebratory function, and a mood-altering function. Social norms prescribe what is, and is not, approved drug use, and this has always been the case. These norms change from culture to culture, and from era to era, as do the sanctions that society applies to those individuals who do not conform to these norms. One century’s celebrated drug is another generation’s illicit substance.

But what is a drug? The term ‘drug’ is difficult to define objectively.  This is because what constitutes a ‘drug’ is both a subjective and a socio-cultural construct. It can mean anything from tea to heroin. One definition is that a drug is: “Any substance that people consider to be a drug, with the understanding that this will change from culture to culture, and from time to time” (Krivanek, 1995, p2). Another definition, which includes both substances and behaviours within the category of ‘drug’, is that: “We may consider the objects of addiction to be those things which reliably and robustly shift subjective experience” (Shaffer, 1997, p1576).

The World Health Organization defines a drug as: “Any substance which when taken into the body, alters its function physically and/or psychologically, excluding food, water, and oxygen”  (1994; McCallum, 1994, p90).  What we can agree on is this: most people use drugs, and most civilizations have developed rituals around drug use. Whether it is drinks after work, or the daily morning tea break, such drug use is an integral and valued part of social interaction. Addiction, therefore, describes a pathological relationship with a substance or a behaviour.

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