What Makes a Drug, a Drug?

The year was 1905: the place, Chicago, the United States of America. A man, after a tiresome day of earning some scraps, walked into the Sears and Roebuck store which had taken the public by storm as they offered a variety of beauties in their catalog— watches, coffins, textiles, opium, and cocaine, to name a few.

The man that entered seemed to be itchy all through; his skin etched with scars of the needles that he had used the day before. The pinpoint pupils in his eyes looked straight into the window that showcased the bottle of Opium Laudanum.
He just pointed to the glass window as he looked at the storekeeper. Hurriedly, he threw some change on the wooden counter that separated the two of them. The storekeeper looking at the change gave him the bottle that the money expected and threw in a syringe to ease the rugged man of his misery.

Opium and cocaine, among many other drugs were readily available everywhere back then.

He rapped out of the store into an alley dominated by the smoke that the industrial age brought to town. With his trembling fingers, he felt the indentations that were uniformly spread on the surface of the syringe- and filled the emptiness inside with the liquid. What followed was purple, the euphoria was evident.


The human mind is a complex system that does not merely work on the inputs that we give it. Instead, it creates its own habits, its own guilty pleasures, and its own inference from experiences that many other humans go through, too. In the case of drugs, different people react differently. But, the underlying scientific action that takes place in the human body is consistent with every human- after the consumption of something like marijuana or heroin, neurons in the brain can be activated as the chemical structure of the drug mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. In the case of amphetamines or cocaine, neurons release large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or inhibit the normal recycling process of these brain chemicals by interfering with the transporters that give us the five senses of touch, vision, hearing, smell, and taste.

What happens on the inside:

The “high” that the body experiences after the taking of psychoactive substances is a result of its nosiness in the functioning of the human central nervous system. A simple movement of your arms or legs, the activity of picking up a mug, even something as trivial as walking in a straight line can become a tad bit tougher than it normally would be- and in some cases, it becomes a humorous activity because of how silly the entire scenario feels. In some cases, everything feels super easy and fluid in a manner of speaking, with a multitude of thoughts hitting you all at once due to a large release of neurotransmitters in the frontal cortex of your brain.

How the human brain works when influenced by drugs

What is the issue?

Anything that hinders productivity and the human tendency to strive against all the odds to achieve something is not supposed to be available in an honest society. From at least the past two hundred years we have been in an age of skyrocketing progress which has separated the society even further in more stringent classes. Somewhere in the middle of this world, a culture of rebels who did not want to conform to society’s standards took shape to do what they liked and what gave them pleasure, what gave them peace- this culture included the “drug”. It was considered by our folks as evil and unnatural, and going against the ideals of society was their go-to-strategy, right?

Human nature makes us do what we feel is our greatest priority. And once the mind believes that its true purpose is to think in one tangent, it is indeed very tough to pivot from there on. These rebels clashed with the real world, and society declared them as outlaws.

Some history

The hippie movement in the 1960s was one where people started rejecting the “mores” of the mainstream American lifestyle, and believed in a life devoid of materialism and repression, laced by a vegetarian diet consisting of mostly unprocessed food, and they did involve themselves in many psychedelic drugs. As this grew, mostly across the score of college students, this dared to threaten the normal capitalistic lifestyle of the regular American. This led to the birth of the War on Drugs, spearheaded by the then President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon. In 1970, he signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) into law. The CSA outlines five “schedules” used to classify drugs based on their medical application and potential for abuse. Schedule one drugs are considered to be considered the most dangerous, and these include Marijuana, LSD, MDMA (also known as Ecstasy), and many others.

Following this, Nixon went on to create the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. This agency is responsible for tackling drug use and smuggling in the United States.

Law enforcement in India

In India, the law enforcement on drugs began in 1985 when Lok Sabha introduced the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Bill (the NDPS Act). Under the NDPS Act, it is illegal for a person to produce, manufacture, or cultivate, possess, sell, purchase, transport, store, and/or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. The NDPS Act has been amended thrice, in 1988, 2001, and in 2014. The 2014 Amendment recognized the need for pain relief in medical cases as the most important obligation of the government, creating a class of medicines called the Essential Narcotic Drugs (ENDs).

Comparison between money spent on law enforcement, treatment of addiction as an illness, and the international average

But, are drugs the real enemy here?

In 2001, Portugal raised the ban on all drugs, be it heroin, cocaine, or any other drug. While the drugs were in itself still illegal, the possession of small amounts of any drug was not an offence that warranted an arrest. Instead, if caught with small quantities, the users were not treated as criminals, they were treated as patients. They would have to appear in front of a panel consisting of lawyers, doctors, and social workers. This did increase the number of tourists coming into the country solely for drugs, and also encouraged the people of Portugal to consume the many varieties of substances, but this drop of the ban on drugs helped people in receiving counselling. The death rate due to drugs dropped drastically to six people per one million in 2015. The number of people participating in rehabilitation programs jumped from six thousand in 1999 to about twenty-five thousand in 2008.

Back to the question. Were drugs the enemy in the case of Portugal? Doesn’t seem so. Are drugs the real enemy in a general case?

No. Human beings are. The ban of any substance does not decrease the intake of the substance in the long run- it merely stalls the real problem that persists.

What makes a drug, a drug, is the perception of a drug in the eyes of the people. Yes, a drug creates a multitude of problems in a person’s life such as addiction, but people who consume it are not bad people. Life is not absolute, a pattern drawn on the sands of the beach does not last forever, and nor is a human being who indulges in substance abuse a criminal. The war against drugs should not be a war where consumers of these drugs are put in the same place as murderers, but instead it should be an effort to save those who are affected by it. Drug addiction is an illness, and if we as human beings can empathize with the many others that suffer from this and take an initiative to help them, we essentially redefine the idea of what makes a drug, a drug. Sometimes, other mental health issues can affect treatment learn more about common co-occurring disorders.

“Prevention is definitely better than cure, but inhibition only sets a trap to lure”

Images courtesy- Mic.com, NBC News, VectorStock, Wikimedia Commons

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