Disturbing Definitions is a series that explores the meanings of words that relate to psychedelics. These may not be literal as “psychedelics” overlap with concepts, themes, and words inherent in a variety of disciplines such as chemistry, psychology, personal development, health, relationships, philosophy, and even love. –RS
We throw around many words when it comes to the things that we ingest–food, water, beverages, drugs, medicine, psychedelics, narcotics, hallucinogens, plants, plant medicine, sacred plant medicine, vitamins, barbiturates, intoxicants, supplements, media, and our environment… but the latter two are taking the meaning of ingestion into another territory. So let’s stick to the category of drug.
What is a Drug?
The Definition of Drug
We are not short of definitions, classifications, or connotations for the word “drug.” In looking up a variety of definitions, some include:
“A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.”
“A drug is any substance (with the exception of food and water) which, when taken into the body, alters the body’s function either physically and/or psychologically.”
“Drugs affect the way your body and mind function; they can change how you feel, think and behave.”
“Pharmacology. A chemical substance used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease or used to otherwise enhance physical or mental well-being.”
“A drug is any chemical you take that affects the way your body works.”
Technically, a drug is a chemical that produces a physiological effect. Superficially, it sounds simple. Not everything is a drug–we exclude food and water from this category (sort of)–but everything is a chemical, comprised of chemicals, including us. The idea, however, is that an external substance enters our bodies and either heals us or destroys us. Regardless, for as much we tell our children–“don’t talk to strangers”–we certainly jump into intimate relationships with all drugs, substances, medicines, foods, etc. without knowing much about them at all or what they do.
The definition of a word is a departure point. The connotations of the word have steered us into confusing territory. If you were to ask the average person–“what is a drug?”–they probably wouldn’t even reach for “chemical” in their attempt to string a definition together. Their definitions would probably veer toward how people use and/or abuse them. That would imply that the chemical doesn’t make the drug, but rather how we use it. But then, we infuse belief into them, as the example of the placebo would demonstrate, and that changes our physiological state.
So, what makes a drug: the chemical, the intent, the use or our belief?
What Do Drugs Do?
Protein is everywhere in our body and comes in different forms. The structure and function of our bodies depend on protein. Our bodies use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Without it, we would not be able to build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, etc.
Receptors are one type of protein. Drugs bind to other proteins and chemicals on the outside of the cell which then in turn can change how that cell functions. As Madonna once sang, “I hold the lock and you hold the key.” In this case, drugs hold the key and protein holds the lock.
When we throw back pharmaceutical drugs, the chemical in that pill is the active ingredient. Usually, we need so little of the chemical to produce an effect that “inactive ingredients” such as gluten, lactose, and dyes are added to fill in the empty space, bind the drug together or make it easier to swallow.
Chemical VS Natural
We often hear “that’s chemical” or “made of chemicals” when referring to something “unnatural.” There is nothing more natural than chemicals.
Though we synthesize most drugs today in a laboratory, the majority of medical and recreational drugs–chemicals–originally began in the natural world. Plants produce them and we produce them because we’re communicating with ourselves and our environment at all times on a chemical level.
Medicine VS Drug
Two roads diverge in a yellow wood
And sorry I…I’m confused.
Then four diverge after that…
Don’t know which one to go down.
Drug is a dirty word; it’s a clean word. We’ve been taught in our schools, in our homes, and in our social circles that there are lines that divide drugs. They are dangerous yet if we are sick, they are beneficial to take. We’ve heard that “illicit” drugs can drive us crazy, suck the life out of us, put holes in our brain, turn us into vegetables, even make us criminal. However, they are also therapeutic. Down that road, the word drug transforms into: medicine, supplements, prescription medication, herbal remedies, etc.
The meanings associated with the word “drug” range from medicinal to mind-altering to addictive. It is a word that has both positive and negative connotations. The darker side of its meaning however has also steered language away from this word when speaking about other substances because of what it implies. When people speak about psychedelics or plant medicine, they are uncomfortable using the word “drug” because of this.
To Check In vs. To Check Out
When we’re taking drugs, plant medicines, psychedelic medicine, plants–depending on the substance–what differentiates the meanings of these words are tradition, intention, and use.
On the one hand, one of the distinctions made between a drug and a plant medicine or psychedelic is that people use “drugs” to “check out.” Bye! Whereas psychedelics or plant medicines in a ritualized context help people to “check in.” What this check-in versus check-out definition implies is that the intention behind your use–what you want to do–determines whether or not the substance in question is a drug. Not the chemical itself.
However, there are people who ingest psychedelics to check the f*ck out. Some would say that this would end up being impossible because sooner or later, these substances (which aren’t all technically psychedelic but rather hallucinogens) are going to take you to the “check-in” center where you’ll have to deal with your escapism.
Drugs are Ritual Tools
When taking plant medicines in a traditional context, the ritual creates a container in which you take the drug, plant, medicine, etc., which by design enabled you, presumably, to get something out of it. In many “plant medicine” circles, they call the practice of taking a substance “the work.” In that case, people use drugs as tools to “work on themselves.”
Though scientific evidence has not yet caught up with the hype, the substances that we would classify as psychedelics work better than the drugs currently on the market, especially in treating addiction. They disrupt whatever patterns that are trapped in your head and/or they help lead the person to the “root” of their problem.
Drugs are a Game of Mental Gymnastics
Some would say that no matter what it is that you’re using, it is medicine. Thus, the question becomes what are you trying to heal from? Maybe that word, medicine, would shift the way we use all the drugs? When we the people, and the government, kicked up the drama around drugs–from alcohol to cocaine to marijuana to psychedelics–if we knew what drugs were, would the “crazy scares” have been avoidable? Probably not. We’re more addicted to fear than any drug as a culture. We are addicted to drama.
The word drug is a ball of clay that we’ve manipulated in order to give it different faces so that we could target certain groups of people. Thus the word draws lines between us too. We almost can’t use the word drugs in the plant medicine arena because the word brings with it a whole history of racism. Beyond that, it also hauls with it the potent and triggering idea that we’ve all lost our minds.
“Hey guys, I’m going to this circle on Friday to take drugs and get my shit together.”
That sounds a lot different than:
“Hey guys, I’m going to a circle on Friday to take sacred plant medicine and get my shit together.”
Drugs are Sacred
The words sacred, spiritual, mystical, and ritual together imbue the word “drug” or “medicine” with an experience that is lacking in Western medicine–this is true. Spirit has been sucked out of medicine. That ain’t woo-woo. Spirit is a fact. What does “the spirit of the nation” mean if there is no such thing as spirit? We could say that we’ve all been somewhat traumatized in this culture by institutionalized religion, specifically Christianity, and even more particularly, the Puritans. That’s what cool old ladies in France think in any case.
To get even more nitty-gritty about words, not all the psychedelics that we call psychedelics are by definition, psychedelic. Right now, leading the pack due to its legality is Ketamine, a dissociative, not a psychedelic. However, Ronan Levy of Field Trip Ventures defined psychedelic medicine as: “is anything that shrinks the ego and temporarily suspends the Default Mode Network.” This is now what we believe to be one of the keys to the health benefits.
A predicament. Using the word “medicine” changes the meaning of the word drug in its purpose. Medicine is good for us, which means that other drugs are “bad” for us. Or, they at least enable a much deeper dysfunctional relationship. We can get addicted to those–which puts the D in Drug–dirty.
But we love to play dirty.
Drugs that Are/Are Not Drugs
We often exclude food and water from the category of drug. Hydrogen and oxygen make up water, which are chemicals that have an effect on our body. Without water, we could not survive. By definition, however, is water a drug? Water doesn’t seem to adhere to the lock and key system. It just passes through by diffusion and by osmosis, “but most of it moves through special protein channels called aquaporins.” Water might pass as not a drug.
However, food could be a drug. According to Shelley McGuire, PhD, “We’ve known for years that foods–even eating, itself–can trigger release of various brain chemicals, some of which are also involved in what happens with drug addiction and withdrawal.” What makes food not a drug? What makes certain chemicals in foods not drugs? When you eat comfort food does that not produce a response? Overeating triggers a response in the brain–the release of GABA.
We call sugar a drug since we are addicted to it–and it is literally in everything. Another classic example of an everyday and everywhere drug is caffeine, the carriers being coffee, tea, Coca Cola or red bull. One might say that caffeine is nowhere near as potent as heroin, cocaine, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, etc., but “American Runs on Dunkin’.” Though that’s no longer their slogan, what that does say is that we run on coffee and sugar–which means we quite literally run on drugs.
We could scan our supermarkets and home and body sections to find all sorts of goodies that affect the way our body behaves. Chocolate can make you high too through a variety of chemicals that it contains such as theobromine. Vitamins and supplements are another arena of substances that we don’t call drugs. In this case, we are talking about nutrients that the body needs to function optimally that it may or may not produce on its own. If you take a lot of Vitamin C, it will jack you up. If you take magnesium, that will calm your system down. So again, what is a drug?
Are We Made Of Drugs?
Dennis McKenna made a provocative statement in a Trippy Talk last year: “Because we are biological beings, like it or not, we’re machines that run on drugs,” meaning chemicals. “We are made of drugs.” We are biological engines, made up of chemicals, but are we made of drugs?
This would imply that drugs need not be foreign agents that enter our body from the outside.
We talk about people as being “toxic” and “healthy” along with the relationships we have with each other. That is within our own social interactions. If we were to zoom out and look at the earth as one big body, then human beings could be potentially both a medicine and a lethal drug. We’re destroying the earth and changing how it is functioning. Then, similarly to medicine, the antidote to the poison–which is one kind of drug–would also be us. Are we drugs? Well, some say we descended from fungi. They aren’t drugs but they contain drugs!
Meaning is slipping away.
Drugs We Make?
What about serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, endorphins, oxytocin, and adrenaline? These are all naturally occurring in the body, and they affect us. Some of these are neurotransmitters and others are hormones, but again everything is chemical so…? We can stimulate their release through different kinds of activity. We can get high off of them—runner’s high is the release of dopamine and endorphins. Horror movies–for those that are into them–can also get someone high on the cocktail that they make when watching it. But these wouldn’t be classified as drugs; not the neurotransmitter, nor the hormone, nor working-out. However, steroids, which are synthetic versions of testosterone–a hormone, are drugs.
In a certain light, all of these could be drugs, so we ask again–what is a drug?
As a friend once said of tofu, angrily: “I don’t trust tofu because you can’t be everything. You can’t be meat and ice cream and plant and…” But many musicians have sung this phrase: “everything is everything.”
The etymology of “drug” does not help answer the question. The origin of the word drug–in English–is unclear. Descending from the French “drogue” and the Dutch “droog” before that, it simply refers to a dry good. Some claim that the French word “drogue” was originally from the Persian “droa” which means aromatic odor. Drugs were a part of the system of commerce. Herbs and spices were transported around the world. Always have been. As a word, drug is fairly broad and benign.
Except it’s not. With it comes a sordid history of control, colonialism, racism, and fear. On the other hand, it comes with medicinal, therapeutic, and healthy connotations. In the case of the “drug” word however, it’s the addictive quality of some of them that causes people to avoid the word–especially when we’re talking about psychedelics as medicine.
If one definition of drug is addictive, then many other things could fall under that category. People are addicted to porn, exercise, sex, dysfunctional relationships, the internet. All these things can produce a physiological response. We would all agree that it appears that some substances are more addictive than others, but on some level, is it about the thing itself or is it the feeling that we are addicted to?
When it comes to drugs–especially the illegal ones–we’ve been fed scare tactics that overall are not fully based on credible scientific evidence or a holistic understanding of what addiction is about. That’s not to say that there aren’t substances that are more addictive than others but there is something much deeper going on than fueling the addiction. Our culture doesn’t exactly promote moderation.
Our Drug is Our Belief
The placebo effect is a fascinating phenomenon to consider. You take something, thinking it’s a drug, but in fact, you’re taking something with the belief that it is something which then produces a physiological response. So, is our belief a drug?
In an academic paper, “Poppy and Opium in Ancient Times: Remedy or Narcotic?” historian Ana Maria Rosso takes on two of the oldest drugs–the poppy and opium. Interestingly enough, the etymologies of the 20 or so alkaloids these contain: morphine, thebane, and heroin derive from Greek beliefs and Egyptian places. Morphine comes from Morpheus, the god of dreams as named by Ovid. It comes from the Greek “form, shape, beauty, outward appearances.” Thebaine comes from Thebes–the city. Heroin derives from the word Hero because it affects the user’s self-esteem. Around the globe, ancient cultures have manipulated natural material in order to produce medicines, drugs, etc. etc. etc. However, the belief we put into substances and our words determines everything.
But if our beliefs are also drugs, then we can get addicted to our ideas.
So what is a drug? An example of our need to define things until meaning vanishes?