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. The list goes on and on. The latter two, however, are taking what we ingest into slightly different territory, so we’ll avoid that. Let’s stick to the category of drugs.
What is a Drug?
We are not short of definitions, classifications, or connotations for the word “drug.” Some definitions include:
A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.
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…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.
The definition of a word is a departure point. Superficially, it sounds simple. A drug is a chemical that produces an effect. Not everything is a drug, but everything is chemical, comprised of chemicals, including us. Dig a little deeper, however, and a drug isn’t just a chemical, it is a threat to our children. But, as much we teach them–“don’t talk to strangers”–we certainly jump into intimate relationships with all that we ingest; drugs, substances, medicines, foods, etc., without knowing much about them or what they do.
The definition of the drug then diverges into two. We can either go down the road that it destroys us or the one that it heals us.
The connotations of the word steer us into confusing territory. If you were to ask the average person–“what is a drug?”–they probably wouldn’t even reach for “chemical.” They would probably steer towards, how people use or abuse them, for example. Then, a chemical doesn’t make the drug, but rather how we use it. What about a placebo? There isn’t any drug involved in that experience. In the case of plant medicines or psychedelics, for example, what differentiates these from other drugs?
Drug is a dirty word; it’s a clean word. If we are sick, they are beneficial to take. Drugs, on the other hand, drive us crazy, suck the life out of us, put holes in our brain, turn us into vegetables, and even make us criminal.
People use “drugs” to “check out.” Whereas psychedelics or plant medicines in a ritualized context help people to “check-in.” According to that definition distinction, your intention determines whether or not the substance in question is a drug, not the chemical itself.
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. 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 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. Should a protein then be considered a drug since without it the drug would not work?
When we take 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. Then, when we are taking drugs, it’s usually not even the primary ingredient. The chemical that is, the dictionary definition of drug.
Drug as Chemical
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.
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.
We often hear “that’s chemical” or “made of chemicals” when referring to something “unnatural.” There is nothing more natural than chemicals. However, we need so little of a chemical to produce an effect that the majority of the pill, that we call a drug, is filled with “inactive ingredients” such as gluten, lactose, and dyes to bind the drug together or make it easier to swallow.
Drug As Food
Food is a drug.
According to Shelley McGuire, PhD, “We’ve known for years that foods–even eating, itself–can trigger the release of various brain chemicals, some of which are also involved in what happens with drug addiction and withdrawal.” Overeating triggers a response in the brain–the release of GABA–for example, which relaxes you. Comfort food.
We call sugar a drug since we are addicted to it. Another one we call caffeine. 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. We quite literally run on drugs.
If you take a lot of Vitamin C, it will jack you up. If you take magnesium, that will calm your system down. Vitamins and supplements are another arenas of substances that we don’t call drugs.
Drugs As Mental Gymnastics
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 get high off of them. For example, runner’s high is the release of dopamine and endorphins. 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.
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.”
Are We Made Of Drugs?
“Because we are biological beings, like it or not, we’re machines that run on drugs,” meaning chemicals. “We are made of drugs.” –Dennis Mckenna
We are biological engines, made up of chemicals, but are we made of drugs?
Well, human beings could be viewed as both a medicine and a lethal agent. Similarly to medicine then, perhaps we are the antidote to our own poison. Some even say that we descended from fungi, which aren’t drugs but are made of drugs. Are we then, made of drugs or that we evolved to our current state of consciousness because of them?
Meaning is slipping away.
The Root of Drug
The etymology of “drug” does not help in giving me something to stick to.
The origin of the word drug–in English–is unclear. It either descends from the French “drogue,” the Dutch “droog” before that (dry good), or the Persian “droa,” which means aromatic odor. As a word, drug is fairly broad and benign.
Drugs as Addictive
If one definition of a drug is that it is addictive, then many other things could fall under that category.
People are addicted to food, porn, exercise, sex, dysfunctional relationships, and the internet. All these things can produce a physiological response. Some substances appear more addictive than others, but on some level, is it about the thing itself or is it the feeling that we are addicted to? 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.
We can get addicted to drugs–which puts the D in Drug–dirty.
But we love to play dirty.
Our Drug is Our Belief
When you take a placebo, you believe that what you are taking is a drug, thus it has an effect. 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. They seemed to define the chemicals with broader more imaginative words. The belief we put into substances defines the experience.
So, what is a drug?
An example of our need to define things until meaning vanishes.