Why People Use Drugs

Drugs are fascinating because they can change our awareness. The basic reason people take drugs is to vary their conscious experience. Of course there are many other ways to alter consciousness, such as listening to music, making music, dancing, fasting, chanting, exercising, surfing, meditating, falling in love, hiking in the wilderness (if you live in a city), visiting a city (if you live in the wilderness), having sex, daydreaming, watching fireworks, going to a movie or play, jumping into cold water after taking a hot sauna, participating in religious rituals. The list is probably endless, and includes nearly all the activities that people put most of their time, energy, and hard-earned money into. This suggests that changing consciousness is something people like to do.

Human beings, it seems, are born with a need for periodic variations in consciousness. The behavior of young children supports this idea. Infants rock themselves into blissful states; many children discover that whirling, or spinning, is a powerful technique to change awareness; some also experiment with hyperventilation (rapid, deep breathing) followed by mutual chest-squeezing or choking, and tickling to produce paralyzing laughter. Even though these practices may produce some uncomfortable results, such as dizziness or nausea, the whole experience is so reinforcing that children do it again and again, often despite parental objections. Since children all over the world engage in these activities, the desire to change consciousness does not seem to be a product of a particular culture but rather to arise from something basically human. As children grow older they find that certain available

Wine is used ceremonially in both Judaic and Christian rites. According to the Gospels, the Last Supper was the Jewish Passover feast. (Free Lance Photographers Guild)

substances put them in similar states. The attractiveness of drugs is that they provide an easy, quick route to these experiences.

Many drug users talk about getting high. Highs are states of consciousness marked by feelings of euphoria, lightness, self-tran-scendence, concentration, and energy. People who never take drugs also seek out highs. In fact, having high experiences from time to time may be necessary to our physical and mental health, just as laughter and dreaming at night seem to be vital to our well-being. Perhaps that is why a desire to alter normal consciousness exists in everyone and why people pursue the experiences even though there are sometimes uncomfortable side effects.

Although the desire for high states is at the root of drug-taking in both children and grownups, people also take drugs for other, more practical reasons. These include:

To aid religious practices. Throughout history, people have used drug-induced states to transcend their sense of separateness and feel more at one with nature, God, and the supernatural. Marijuana was used for this purpose in ancient India, and many psychedelic plants are still so used today by Indians in North and South America. Alcohol has been used for religious purposes in many parts of the world; the role of wine in Roman Catholic and Judaic rites persists as an example. Among primitive people, psychoactive plants are often considered sacred — gifts from gods and spirits to unite people with the higher realms.

Top: William James (1842-1910), American psychologist and philosopher. (From The Letters of William lames, edited by Henry James. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 19201

Bottom: Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), American writer and physician. (From Medicine: An Historical Outline, copyright 1931 by the Williams & Wilkins Co., Baltimore)

To explore the self. Curious individuals throughout history have taken psychoactive substances to explore and investigate parts of their own minds not ordinarily accessible. One of the most famous modern examples was the British writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, who experimented extensively with mescaline in the 1950s. He left us a record of his investigations in a book called The Doors of Perception. Some other well-known "explorers" are Oliver Wendell Holmes, the nineteenth-century American physician, poet, and author, who experimented with ether,- William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher of the late nineteenth century, who used nitrous oxide; Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who took cocaine; William S. Burroughs, a contemporary American novelist and user of opiates; Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), a psychologist and guru, who has extensive experience with LSD and other psychedelics; and John Lilly, a medical researcher and philosopher, who has experimented with ketamine. Many others who have followed this path have done so privately, keeping their experiences to themselves, or sharing them only with intimate companions.

To alter moods. Many people take drugs to relieve anxiety, depression, lethargy, or insomnia, or to escape from pain and boredom. The idea that unwanted moods are disease states treatable by taking medicines has become very popular in our society. The pharmaceutical industry has both encouraged and capitalized on this notion, with the result that the majority of legal medical drugs sold today are aimed at changing undesired moods. Young people see their parents use drugs in this way and are also influenced by advertising that directly promotes such behavior. Many people of all ages use nonmedical drugs, both legal and illegal ones, in this fashion.

To treat disease. Because psychoactive drugs really make people feel different, doctors and patients have always relied heavily on them for dealing with the symptoms of illness. Opium, morphine, and alcohol were mainstays of nineteenth-century medicine, used to treat everything from menstrual cramps to epilepsy. (One eminent physician of the day even called morphine "God's own medicine.") Tincture of marijuana was also a popular remedy. At the end of the nineteenth century, cocaine was promoted as a miracle drug and cure-all, and coca wine was the most widely prescribed drug for a time. In recent years, diazepam (Valium) has held that distinction. This kind of treatment may work by distracting a patient's attention from symptoms and shifting it instead toward the good feeling of a high. Sometimes the medical problem will then go away on its own. Often, however, if there is no treatment of the underlying cause of the symptoms, the problem will persist and the patient may go on to use the drug again and again until dependence results.

To escape boredom and despair. In the words of Aldous Huxley, "Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor, and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves, if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul."

To promote and enhance social interaction. "Let's have a drink" is one of the most frequent phrases in use today. It is an invitation to share time and communication around the consumption of a psychoactive drug. Like sharing food, taking drugs together is a ritual excuse for intimacy; coffee breaks and cocktail ("happy") hours are examples of the way approved drugs are used for this purpose. Disapproved drugs may draw people together even more strongly by establishing a bond of common defiance of authority. At the big rock concerts and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, strangers often became instant comrades simply by passing a joint back and forth.

In different cultures other drugs perform the same function. For example, South American Indians take coca breaks together, much as we take coffee breaks, and chewing coca leaves with a friend establishes an important social bond. For South Sea Islanders, drinking kava in groups at night is the equivalent of an American cocktail party.

Aside from the ritual significance with which drugs are invested, their pharmacological effects may also enhance social interaction. Because alcohol lowers inhibitions in most people, businessmen and women have drinks at lunch to encourage openness and congeniality. Similarly, on dates people often drink to reduce anxiety and feelings of awkwardness. By producing alertness and euphoria, stimulants, such as cocaine, promote easy conversation, even among strangers.

So important is this function of psychoactive drugs that many people would find it difficult to relate to others if deprived of them.

Mariani wine, containing an extract ol Peruvian coca leaves, was made in Paris in the late I 800s and became the most popular medical prescription in the world, used by kings, queens, leaders of society, and at least one pope. (From the Vin Mariani Album of 1901, Beneficial Plant Research Association Reprint Edition, 1981; courtesy of Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library)

To enhance sensory experience and pleasure. Human beings arc pleasure-seeking animals who are very inventive when it comes to finding ways to excite their senses and gratify their appetites. One of the characteristics of sensory pleasure is that it becomes dulled with repetition, and there are only so many ways of achiev-

TK J avoid diMrpotnt-mrnl in cffcct% und in unlet rvrt to Hr «nvtvJ unsc rupuk** dealers. kindly uoic

Mariani

Bottle.

Ni'vrr si.Ill u ImU not in nny olhff Vylr #jf Iniltlr (if * rig,

.**■< » M»vi <tt VJfa ami at feci I tea mf ton*.

• limn - i«Tk 'hi Vnrfu llofiv. »h/twln* I *t*l «••«! ^rUl »•jm.uU with tfettrtpUw Mm4 f »n^.«

iJuMm.it «tjrnatuf« nl A UrUnl. arwnl tvaey iWttic

Rftfl'Sfc SUBSTrTUTKI, «»ONI wcalUtl • fvat —

(Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library)

ing pleasure. As much time, thought, and energy have gone into sex as into any human activity, but the possibilities of sexual positions and techniques are limited. By making people feel different, psychoactive drugs can make familiar experiences new and interesting again. The use of drugs in combination with sex is as old as the hills, as is drug use with such activities as dancing, eating, and listening to or playing music. Drinking wine with meals is an example of this behavior that dates back to prehistory and is still encouraged by society. Some men say that a good cigar and a glass of brandy make a fine meal complete. Pot lovers say that turning on is the perfect way for a fine meal to begin. Psychedelic drugs, especially, are intensifiers of experience and can make a sunset more fascinating than a movie. (Of course, psy-chedelics can also turn an unpleasant situation into a living nightmare.) Because drugs can, temporarily at least, make the ordinary extraordinary, many people seek them out and consume them in an effort to get more enjoyment out of life.

To stimulate artistic creativity and performance. Writers have traditionally used psychoactive substances as sources of inspira-

tion. The English poet Coleridge's famous visionary poem "Kubla Khan" was a transcription of one of his opium dreams. The French poet Charles Baudelaire took hashish as well as opium for creative inspiration. His compatriot, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, joined him in experiments with hashish. The American writer

Edgar Allan Poe relied on opiates; some of the weirdness of his |n Xanadu did Kubla Khan tales probably derives from his drug experiences. Sigmund Freud's ^ stately pleasure dome decree: early writings were inspired by cocaine; for a time he actively Where Alph, the sacred river, ran promoted cocaine as a miracle drug. Innumerable novelists, poets, Through caverns measureless to playwrights, and journalists have found their inspiration in alco- man hoi. Many have paid the high price of becoming alcoholics. Down to a sunless sea.

Some traditional peoples turn psychedelic visions into art. For — opening lines of "Kubla Khan" example, the yarn paintings of the Huichol Indians of Mexico j}^ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge come directly from peyote sessions. Other artists find visions in 1 their own imagination but use psychoactive drugs to help them do the work of translating their visions into art. Diego Rivera, the best-known Mexican artist of the twentieth century, was a user of marijuana. The famous American abstract painter Jackson Pol-

A Huichol yarn painting, showing the sacred deer, spirits, and three peyote plants. (Dody Fugate)

You get into heroin because you have a lot of money in your pocket, and you can't go to video games all the time, and you think life is very trivial and very boring, and you look for other people who think the same.

— seventeen-year-old girl, heroin addict

I started shooting heroin at the age of twelve and was a junkie till

I was fifteen. I went cold turkey eight or nine times, but after each cold turkey I'd see my old friends again, and then I'd go back to heroin.

— ninctcen-ycar-old girl, former heroin addict lock was an alcoholic; he died at age forty-four in a car crash, the result of drivingVhile intoxicated.

When marijuana first surfaced in America in the 1920s, musicians were among its most enthusiastic users, and many still use it today, both to compose and to perform. Some of the best-known jazz musicians have been heroin addicts.

There has been little scientific study of the relationship between drugs and creativity. Possibly, high states permit some people to view the world in novel perspectives and to gain insights they can later express artistically.

To improve physical performance. Various drugs enable some people to perform out-of-the-ordinary feats. In the ancient Inca empire of Peru, relay runners used coca in order to be able to cover vast distances in the high Andes, carrying news and messages to all parts of the kingdom. Warriors throughout history have fortified themselves with alcohol before battle to boost their courage and decrease sensitivity to pain. Many professional athletes today follow in this tradition: baseball players chew tobacco; football and basketball players often take amphetamines and cocainc. Also, truckers will often complete long drives on little sleep and a lot of amphetamines.

To rebel. Because drugs are so surrounded by taboos, they invite rebellious behavior. Breaking taboos is an obvious way to challenge the values of the "establishment." Children quickly learn they can upset parents, teachers, doctors, and other grown-up authorities by taking forbidden substances. Adolescence usually entails the assertion of independence, often by rejecting parental values. It is not surprising that adolescence is also a time of frequent experimentation with drugs. Unfortunately, our society's attempt to control drug-taking by making some substances illegal plays into the hands of rebellious children. Even some older people who have not entirely outgrown adolescent traits express rebelliousness in the ways they take drugs.

To go along with peer pressure. Many people who would not seek out drugs on their own take them to go along with the crowd. A man or woman who does not drink with business colleagues is likely to feel like a freak. Some teen-agers start smoking tobacco and marijuana even though they don't like their effects, only to feel accepted — in much the same way that they might adopt faddish styles of dress that do not suit them. Young people often see drugs as symbols of maturity and sophistication, and fear that

21 Why People Use Drugs if they do not use them they will be denied entry into in-crowds. Cigarette and alcohol advertising capitalize on these attitudes and fears.

Using drugs because ''everybody else does it" probably isn't a very good reason, but it is certainly a very common one.

To establish an identity. Often an individual or small group will take up the use of a prohibited substance or abuse a permitted one in order to feel special or create a sense of identity. Just as punk rockers wear outlandish clothes and make-up, some people adopt unusual or affected drug styles to get attention and recognition.

There are so many reasons why people might take drugs that it may be hard to say which ones are operating in any given instance. A person may take one drug for one reason and another for another reason, or take one drug for several reasons at once. Then again, people sometimes take drugs purely out of habit and not for any reason at all.

Suggested Reading

Andrew Weil's The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972; revised edition, 1986) examines drug-taking as a method of changing consciousness and speculates on why altered states of consciousness are important to us.

Society and Drugs by Richard H. Blum and Associates (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970) is a good survey of drug use throughout history in various cultures.

In The joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965), philosopher Alan Watts gives a colorful picture of states of consciousness induced by hallucinogenic drugs. Watts experimented with these substances as an explorer of the mind and a searcher for religious experience.

Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady: Women's Writings on the Drug Experience, edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz (New York: William Morrow, 1982), is an anthology covering many times and cultures. It gives a broad overview of different ways of using many drugs.

For an account of the healing power of laughter, see Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins (New York: Berkley, 1980).

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849], the American writer and poet, was partial to laudanum (tincture of opium), and his macabre tales were no doubt influenced by his experiences with the drug. (Photo World/Free Lancc Photographers Guild)

Relationships with Drugs

The desire to call some drugs good and others bad has given rise to the term drugs of abuse. Government officials and medical doctors frequently talk about drugs of abuse, by which they usually mean all illegal substances. In their view, anyone using them is automatically guilty of drug abuse.

But what is drug abuse? To say that it is the use of a drug of abuse is circular and meaningless. We think that the use of any drug becomes abusive when it threatens a person's health or impairs social or economic functioning. Cigarette smokers with respiratory disease who continue to smoke are clearly abusing tobacco. Students who cannot concentrate on classroom activities because they are stoned are abusing marijuana. Alcoholics who are unable to hold down jobs are abusers of alcohol. Addicts who squander all their money on cocaine, thereby impoverishing their families, are abusers of that drug. On the other hand, any drug can be used in a nonabusive fashion, even if it is illegal or disapproved. There are many people who consume tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, and heroin without abusing them; that is, they remain healthy and fulfill their social and economic obligations. Drug abuse is not simply a matter of what drug a person chooses to consume; rather, it depends on the relationship an individual forms with that drug.

Many factors determine relationships with drugs. Obviously, the drug itself is one important factor; there is a whole science, pharmacology, devoted to finding out what drugs do.

Unfortunately, effects of drugs are difficult to specify. Different people show different responses to the same dose of the same drug, probably because people differ in biochemistry, just as they do in appearance. Even the same person may respond differently to the same dose of the same drug at different times. Pharmacologists attempt to minimize these variations by giving drugs to animals and people under controlled laboratory conditions. The results of these experiments enable them to classify drugs into different categories. For example, they can show most psychoactive drugs to be either stimulants or depressants of the nervous system.

Laboratory experiments also show us that the dose of a drug is a crucial variable. High doses of a substance may produce very different effects from low doses. Moderate doses of alcohol will give many people feelings of well-being and relaxation; high doses may cause incoordination, confusion, and sickness.

The way a drug is put into the body also shapes its effects. When you take a drug by mouth it enters the bloodstream slowly, and its influence on the nervous system is less intense than when you bypass the gastrointestinal tract by sniffing, smoking, or injecting it. High doses of drugs introduced by one of these more direct routes are likely to be more harmful and more addicting over time.

These pharmacological facts can explain some of the variations we see in the relationships people form with drugs. For instance, South American Indians who chew coca leaves ordinarily swallow low doses of cocaine and do not become abusers of that stimulant. People who put much larger doses of powder cocaine in their noses or who smoke crack cocaine are much more likely to develop medical, social, and psychological problems. The abuse potential of snorting or smoking coke is far greater than the abuse potential of chewing coca. In other words, people are more likely to form good relationships with coca than with cocaine, and this difference clearly has some basis in pharmacology.

However, the laboratory is not the real world, and pharmacology can only explain certain aspects of human relationships with drugs. When people take drugs in the real world their experiences are often not what pharmacologists would predict. The reason is that outside the laboratory other factors can completely change the effects of drugs. One such factor is called set; set is what a person expects to happen when he or she takes a drug. Expectation is shaped by all of past experience — what a person has heard about the drug, read about it, seen of it, thought about it, and wants it to do. Sometimes it is not easy to find out what people expect of a drug because their real feelings might be hidden from themselves. A teen-age boy smoking marijuana for the first time

A Brazilian Indian smoking. From a French drawing dated 1558. (Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library)
This carved stone head from Colombia shows a coca user, his cheek bulged out with leaves. It dates from about 1400. (Michael R. Aldnch)

may think he is eager to have a new experience, whereas unconsciously he may be terrified of losing his mind or getting so stoned he will never come down. Such unconscious fears can determine reactions to marijuana more than the actual effect of the drug.

Set can also be as important as pharmacology in shaping long-term relationships with drugs. For example, some people expect marijuana to make them relaxed and tired and so will use it only occasionally at bedtime to help fall asleep, whereas others, who feel that pot reduces their anxiety and makes it easier to relate to people, use it so frequently throughout the day that they become dependent on it.

A "smoke-in" in Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1968. (Shelly Rüsten, Free Lance Photographers Guild)

A "smoke-in" in Tompkins Square Park, New York City, 1968. (Shelly Rüsten, Free Lance Photographers Guild)

Setting is another factor that modifies pharmacology. Setting is the environment in which a drug is used — not just the physical environment but also the social and cultural environment. During the Vietnam War many American soldiers got into the habit of smoking large amounts of the high-grade heroin that was cheap and easily available to them in Southeast Asia. They rolled it into cigarettes with tobacco or marijuana and used it primarily to escape boredom, because for many American soldiers Vietnam was, more than anything else, boring, and because heroin seems to make time pass more quickly. Pharmacologists would have predicted that most of these soldiers would become heroin addicts, but in fact, most of them stopped using opiates as soon as they came home. It was the special setting of army life in Vietnam that shaped this pattern of drug use, and when people left that setting most of them stopped easily.

Set and setting together can modify pharmacology drastically. Therefore, talking about the effects of drugs in the real world is not so simple. Effects of drugs are relative to particular people, places, and times. In ancient India, marijuana was eaten for religious purposes; people used it for its effects on consciousness in socially accepted ways. In England and America during the nineteenth century, doctors gave tincture of marijuana to sick people as a remedy, and most patients never reported getting high on it, probably because they did not expect to and so ignored the psychoactive effects. In the United States in the 1920s, members of certain subcultures began smoking marijuana to feel high — a practice regarded as deviant by the dominant culture. Many early marijuana smokers panicked and some even committed acts of violence under its influence. Today, the smoking of marijuana is accepted in many circles, and users think it decreases aggression and hostility.

The fact that effects of psychoactive drugs can change so much from person to person, from culture to culture, and from age to age points up the folly of calling any drug good or bad. But if there is no such thing as a drug of abuse, still there is drug abuse, and learning to recognize it is important. Only in analyzing people's relationships with drugs can good and bad have meaning. Some people may be upset by the notion that you can have a good relationship with a drug, but chances are they fail to acknowledge that many socially accepted substances are, in fact, drugs.

Good relationships with drugs have four common characteristics:

1. Recognition that the substance you are using is a drug and awareness of what it does to your body. People who wind up

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The father of psychoanalysis, Freud was an early enthusiast for cocaine as well as an addicted cigar smoker (twenty a day). He later repudiated cocaine, but continued smoking for most of his life and died of a tobacco-related oral cancer. (National Library of Medicine. Courtesy of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Archives)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The father of psychoanalysis, Freud was an early enthusiast for cocaine as well as an addicted cigar smoker (twenty a day). He later repudiated cocaine, but continued smoking for most of his life and died of a tobacco-related oral cancer. (National Library of Medicine. Courtesy of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute Archives)

in the worst relationships with drugs often have little understanding of the substances they use. They think coffee is just a beverage, marijuana an herb, and diet pills just "appetite suppressants." All drugs have the potential to cause trouble unless people take care not to let their use of them get out of control. A necessary first step is to acknowledge the nature of the substances in use and to understand their effects.

2. Experience of a useful effect of the drug over time. People who begin to use drugs regularly often find that their early experiences with them are the best; as they use the drugs more and more frequently, the effects they like seem to diminish. People in the worst relationships with drugs often use them very heavily but get the least out of them. This curious pattern happens with all drugs and can be very frustrating. Frequency of use is the critical factor in determining whether the effect of a drug will last over time. If the experience you like from a drug begins to fade, that is a sign you are using too much too often. If you ignore the warning and continue consuming the drug at the same frequency, you will begin to slide into a worse and worse relationship with it.

3. Ease of separation from use of the drug. One of the more striking features of a bad relationship with a drug is dependence: it controls you more than you control it. People in good relationships with drugs can take them or leave them. *

4. Freedom from adverse effects on health or behavior. People vary in their susceptibility to the adverse effects of drugs. Some individuals can smoke cigarettes all their lives and never develop lung disease. Some people can snort cocaine frequently and remain physically and psychologically healthy and socially productive. Others cannot. Using drugs in ways that produce adverse effects on health and behavior and continuing their use in spite of these effects is the defining characteristic of drug abuse.

Whether a drug is legal or illegal, approved or disapproved, obtained from a physician or bought on the black market, if the user is aware of its nature, can maintain a useful effect from it over time, can easily separate himself or herself from it, and can remain free from adverse effects, that is a good relationship with the drug.

Bad relationships with drugs begin with ignorance of the nature of the substance and loss of the desired effect with increasing

'Dependence on drugs is discussed at length in Chapter 12

frequency of use, and progress to difficulty in leaving the drug alone, with eventual impairment of health or social functioning.

Any drug can be used successfully, no matter how bad its reputation, and any drug can be abused, no matter how accepted it is. There are no good or bad drugs; there are only good and bad relationships with drugs.

Suggested Reading

Drugs: A Multimedia Sourcebook for Young Adults by Sharon Ashenbrenner Charles and Sari Feldman (New York: Neal Schumann, 1980) is an annotated listing of books, pamphlets, and films, including works of fiction, and gives addresses for ordering these materials.

In The Marriage of the Sun and Moon: A Quest for Unity in Consciousness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), Andrew Weil presents a number of case examples of substances and techniques that can make people high. Some involve drugs such as magic mushrooms, coca leaves, and marijuana,- others do not — uncontrolled laughter, Indian sweat baths, eating mangoes and hot chil-ies, and watching eclipses of the sun, for example. The ways people think about these substances and activities determine the relationships formed with them.

Types of Drugs

Psychoactive drugs can be classified according to whether they are natural or manmade, produced by our own bodies or by plants, crude mixtures of substances or single, purified chemicals. These differences may influence the relationships people form with drugs, and users, especially, should be aware of them.

Endogenous (In-the-Body) Drugs

The human body, especially in the brain and certain glands, makes powerful chemicals that affect our moods, thoughts, and actions. We call these substances endogenous drugs, using a term with Greek roots meaning "made within." Interestingly enough, they resemble many of the external chemicals people take to change their consciousness.

The discovery of endogenous drugs is a recent scientific breakthrough. By 1950, brain researchers had come to understand that psychoactive drugs work by fitting into special receptor sites on nerve cells just as keys fit into locks. Only when a drug molecule plugs into a receptor that fits it does it produce an effect, such as causing a nerve cell to fire an electrical impulse or preventing it from firing one. This principle is the cornerstone of current theory about drugs and the nervous system.

For example, pharmacologists learned that morphine and heroin attach to special opiate receptors on nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. But why should our brains have receptors designed to fit molecules made by poppy plants? Some researchers

IîAo L Boilew. Anient suggested that opiate receptors really exist for other substances made by the brain itself — molecules whose shapes happen to be similar to those of opiates. In 1975 this suggestion was confirmed with the discovery of a group of chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are the brain's own narcotics, producing most of the effects of poppy drugs, including euphoria and reduction of pain.

Endorphins are now under intense investigation because they are likely to reveal much about the workings of our minds and bodies. People who have high tolerance for pain may produce more of these endogenous narcotics. When you wake up one day feeling high and unfazed by the problems that ordinarily get you down, your endorphin system might be in high gear. Some people may be born with an inability to make enough endorphins; possibly, they are the ones who find opiates especially pleasant and come to rely on them to cope with the pain and stress of day-today existence.

The discovery of endorphins also raises interesting questions. Why have the human brain and the poppy evolved chemicals with similar effects when they are so unlike each other? Is this fact a mere coincidence or does it suggest a deep relationship between people and plants that underlies the age-old inclination to experiment with vegetable drugs? And what does it say about the "nat-

Old botanical drawing of an opium poppy, showing details of the unripe pods with incisions to permit the flow of opium. (Courtesy of the Harvard College Library)

uralness" of taking drugs? It is possible that endorphins and other endogenous agents are the basis of all the highs people experience, whether obtained with drugs or without. People who get high by meditating or running, for example, may have found ways to stimulate the production or release of their own neurochemicals.

Not only does the body make its own narcotics, it also makes representatives of most of the other categories of drugs discussed in this book. It certainly makes its own uppers in the form of adrenaline and noradrenaline. It makes its own downers in the form of serotonin and GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid), chemicals that slow down transmission in the central nervous system. Sex hormones can be powerful antidepressants, working better than anything so far concocted in a laboratory. Probably the body also makes its own psychedelics — most likely DMT (dimethyl-tryptamine) or a close relative of it — since the pineal gland, deep in the brain, secretes hormones with a very similar molecular structure.

Because the drugs our bodies make are designed to fit exactly into receptors on nerves, they are very powerful and efficient in producing their effects. Scientists are just beginning to learn about them and will certainly have much to say on the subject in years to come. It will be interesting to know how the use of external drugs affects the production of internal ones. Possibly, regular use of a drug from outside decreases or shuts off the manufacture of the corresponding endogenous substance, and so creates a chemical basis for dependence and addiction.

Natural Drugs

Beating The Butt On Your Own

Beating The Butt On Your Own

Need To Stop Smoking? Are You Willing To Follow My Powerful Strategies To Stop Smoking And Vividly Transform Your Life Today? Proven Tips, Tools and Tactics To Stop Smoking And Live An Awesome Life You Always Wanted.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment