Term Paper: Drugs and Society

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Drugs and Society

Why do people use drugs: A historical and philosophical overview

The word 'drug' can have either a positive or a negative connotation. On one hand, legally-prescribed drugs have saved the lives of many people: antibiotics can cure infections; drugs can alleviate pain and the symptoms of many common illnesses spanning from allergies to the common cold; drugs can curtail the advancement of serious illnesses, and make living with chronic diseases such as diabetes feasible. But there is a clear dark side to drug use: drug addiction. Several models have been suggested to explain why people use illegal drugs and abuse legal drugs, none of which are entirely persuasive.

The oldest model, which still has a great deal of traction today, is that of the moral model: It is assumed that people who use drugs are morally 'weak' and use drugs to escape reality. Another model, occasionally used by artists, is the idea that drugs can free the human consciousness from the boundaries of conventional reality. Opium smoking was not uncommon during the 19th century amongst the Romantic poets, just like LSD was popular amongst a wide subculture of musicians and other artists. And there is a longstanding tradition amongst writers and other artists to use alcohol as a method of release (Berridge 1988: 51). One of the most famous accounts of drug abuse was The doors of perception and heaven and hell by Aldous Huxley, which chronicles the author's experiences taking mescaline. Similar to that of earlier recreational drug users, Huxley conducted his self-experiments when the drug was not illegal, and the negative side effects of long-term use were not known.

From an artist's perspective, one could argue that any supposed benefits that might be derived from drug use are miniscule for 'the art' and instead their use is really is a product of the culture that surrounds artists. In other words, rather than the benefits actually derived from experimenting with drugs, the main reasons that artists often dabble in drug use are because it is so accepted within the culture that surrounds the production of art. It is true that a culture of acceptance is yet another reason that people use drugs -- whether the subculture of teens or impoverished persons who abuse street drugs and alcohol; of bodybuilders and other athletes who illegally use steroids, or even cultures where drugs are used as part of religious rituals, such as the use of peyote in Native American rituals. In these instances, it is fairly easy to understand the 'why' of drug use -- it is normalized, and not using drugs is considered unusual.

Another reason that people abuse drugs that is little-publicized by the pharmaceutical industry is the ways in which the use of legal, prescribed drugs can morph into abuse. Someone may be given a prescription for an opiate-based painkiller and begin to use the numbing effects of these painkillers, not for pain but for psychological reasons -- to shut out reality. Stimulants like Ritalin can treat ADHD or can be abused to enable students to stay awake for a test or for adults to work 24-hour shifts. There are instances of individuals 'faking' pain to obtain drugs or buying drugs with legitimate uses off of the streets. These examples highlight the tenuous relationship between legitimate and illegitimate drug use. Clearly, some drugs seem to have few medical applications and can be classified as almost entirely negative in their effects, such as cocaine and heroin. However, many other drugs have both palliative and abusive potential, including opiate-based painkillers and marijuana. This suggests that the way drugs are used must be considered when evaluating whether drug use is 'wrong.'

Such examples also highlight the question of what constitutes an 'addictive' personality. Some drugs because of their chemical makeup pose a higher risk for physical addiction -- oxycontin is a much more addictive painkiller than aspirin, for example. But not every person who gets prescribed Percocet when recovering from wisdom tooth surgery become addicted to the drug, just like not every person becomes an alcoholic who drinks the socially acceptable drug of alcohol. There is a biological and psychological predisposition to addiction in many individuals.

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