Your Species on Drugs
Virtual Medical Centre defines a drug as "a chemical that interacts with proteins in the body to affect a physiological function." Though this broad definition includes drugs used as medicine, drugs have been used to elicit a change in consciousness since prehistoric times. There is evidence of alcohol use in China dating back to almost 9,000 years ago. A fossil of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus was found in a Peruvian cave dating to between 8,600 BC and 5,600 BC. The remains of opiates have been found in human skeletons from 4,000 BC. The list of evidence for ancient human drug consumption goes on. The official inception isn't quite clear when you realize animals have been doing drugs since before humanity.
It is probable that as early cultures of drug use began, so did cultures of disapproval and fear. People generally fear the unknown, and processing the resulting behavioral changes would have elicited mixed reactions. Perhaps in some instances, human curiosity paved the way towards near-total social acceptance of a given substance as people flocked to see what the commotion was all about. In others (such as with peyote), drugs found a special niche in certain spiritual rites. But in at least some cases, drug users were ostracized as members of their societies rejected the altered behavior. The outcome depends on a slew of factors—especially the effects of the drug—but also the social winds and whims of humanity.
As such, different cultures throughout history have interacted with drugs in different ways. Some drugs were accepted, others stigmatized. The array of drugs in the pre-colonial Americas (ayahuasca, tobacco, coca, San Pedro cactus) was very different from that of the Old World (distilled alcohol, opium, cannabis). There are, of course, a great deal many more drugs than those just listed, each with its own dynamic story. But why have some drugs become cultural icons while others have been shunned? To understand why, let's discuss the histories, surrounding cultures, and physical effects of the three big drugs that are legally accepted in the Western world today:
- Tobacco & Nicotine
Alcohol: An Ancient Romance
The oft-used term "drugs and alcohol" speaks volumes for the way we view alcohol in the Western world. Without any real reason other than cultural preference, we make an exception for it! Historically, alcohol has been tolerated by most of mankind. The oldest evidence of its intentional production is about 9,000 years old, found in ancient China. Alcohol occurs naturally with relative ease, to the extent that humans are not the only animal that will use alcohol recreationally. In fact, geneticists have traced back our ability to process ethanol to 10 million years ago, before true humans even existed! Essentially, our very ancient ancestors used to get loaded off rotten fruit, and they needed to be able to do it without dying. Much later, they'd purposefully brew the stuff for their own consumption. Did you know, however, that in North America, the Natives practiced only very limited alcohol consumption? Some tribes in the South made weak beers and wines, but many did not know of alcohol or use it at all. This is why alcohol was so destructive to the Native culture when the Europeans, who had already developed distilled liquors, began to arrive.
The type of alcohol humans can drink safely (well, somewhat safely...) is called ethanol. Ethanol affects the brain in various ways, but the main attraction is that is causes large amounts of dopamine to be released in the brain's reward circuit. This rush of dopamine is responsible for the rosy-cheeked euphoria so many know and love. It's sort of an ancient glitch in our physiology: the ethanol is telling your brain you've done something good when you're actually getting high off a toxic substance. Awesome, right?
However, alcohol also activates receptor sites on brain cells for a special neurotransmitter—called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)—which inhibits action in the nervous system. This over-inhibition is what leads to the slow movements and slurred speech we notice with drunk people. In addition, ethanol inhibits another neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is one of the most common excitatory neurotransmitters in the brain. This slows down the nervous system even more. The more alcohol consumed, the more the user's motor functions are impaired and delayed. And if too much alcohol is consumed, the brain can't even regulate basic vital tasks like breathing and heartbeat, resulting in death.
Of course, it's not just the nervous system that alcohol affects. While moderate alcohol use can actually decrease heart disease in adults, too much alcohol over time will lead to cardiovascular issues like irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and stroke. Alcohol is also famous for causing liver cirrhosis. It is a relatively potent carcinogen as well, putting heavy drinkers at risk for cancers of the mouth, digestive tract, breast and liver. Other affected regions include the immune system and the pancreas.
So Why Is Alcohol so Acceptable?
We all know vigorous legislation regulates alcohol use in society. Its potential for harm is well known at this point. But as strict as we are with its regulation, we are really pretty lax with alcohol in the West—especially when compared with cannabis, which is much less harmful than alcohol in general.
Alternative attitudes about alcohol exist within Western culture, but on a macroscopic level, its status is a conditional acceptance. Drinkers who show a level of control while under the influence are often lauded for their displays of dominance, though alcohol can easily transform into a bellwether and a catalyst of death and destruction. Especially in Europe, many families introduce alcohol to the youth gradually, which may help promote responsible drinking and stem the reckless drinking so associated with newly-liberated American college students.
So if alcohol is so dangerous, why is it so acceptable, when less harmful substances like cannabis carry hefty penalties for possession? The answer is there is no real answer. It's just the relationship we've formed with drinking alcohol over time. Even though there are many individuals and whole cultures opposed to its use, its popularity has carried on through the generations. A huge factor in all of this is the associated industry, which rings in hundreds of billions in the U.S. every year.
It might also be argued that alcohol is simply too popular and easy to produce to officially criminalize, which became apparent after Prohibition failed in the U.S.
It is interesting that as our relationship with alcohol stands, it is probably the most harmful drug to humanity today. The Pareto principle, which states that 80% of a given product's revenue is attributable to the top 20% of its consumers, has a particularly troubling meaning for the alcohol industry. Still, while many would sneer at cannabis ads at a baseball game, no one bats an eye at a beer or vodka commercial.
Tobacco: A Trade Story
While alcohol maintains a relationship with humans since prehistory, the use of tobacco is a more recent phenomenon. Tobacco plants began growing in North America around 8,000 years ago. These plants produce nicotine, which is toxic to insects, but psychoactive to humans. The Native Americans began chewing and smoking it around 2,000 years ago, but it was not until Columbus arrived that tobacco was known to the rest of the world.
One of the first European settlers in the New World, a friar called Bartolemé Las Casas, noted that the natives in modern Cuba would smoke plant matter rolled up in leaves. The Natives called these tabacos. Las Casas observed that smoking these 'muskets' caused them to become numb and "almost drunk." When he saw Spaniards smoking this strange plant, Las Casas made attempts to get them to drop the vice, but they responded that they simply couldn't stop smoking it!
As the colonial age progressed, Europeans absolutely fell in love with tobacco. Some of the first African slaves were brought to the Americas to aid in its cultivation. Once it hit the streets of Europe (c. 1528), it spread like wildfire. Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal (for whom the genus Nicotiana is named) even sent samples to Francis I in France, who praised the plant for curing his headaches. Soon, every state in Europe would be smoking tobacco.
Not everyone was so excited at the plant's arrival, however. In England, a high tax was placed on the import of tobacco in 1604 after the Stuart King James I had written a treatise entitled "A Counterblaste to Tobacco." Later bans of the 17th century in Russia and the Ottoman Empire, while short-lived, also speak to a certain level of resistance to tobacco's explosive popularity. Nevertheless, tobacco became an important export fueling the growth of American colonies.
Tobacco use continued to expand throughout the world. By the 1880's, the cigarettes we know today appeared on the market with the invention of the cigarette-rolling machine. It wasn't until 1948 that Richard Doll officially discovered that smoking tobacco is dangerous and causes cancer. Different groups and individuals throughout history seemed to have a hunch that smoking was dangerous, but now there was solid evidence. As research piled up, there was significant incentive for regulations (such as age restriction) as well as general public concern.
Today we know the smoke and tar from tobacco products causes cancer. In fact, tobacco use is linked to about 9% of deaths globally. But tobacco companies are still pulling in billions of dollars, and disconcertingly enough, cigarettes are still popular among children in countries like Indonesia.
Because of the nature of tobacco—with nicotine linked to addiction and tobacco smoke to cancer—there is an ethical dilemma associated with the industry. In decades past, advertisement was relentless. Manipulative tactics were often used to draw in and hook consumers. In modern times, there are restrictions on these ads, and public service announcements are regularly broadcast warning about the dangers associated with using tobacco.
1994: Big Tobacco Executives Deny Nicotine's Addictive Quality
Why Is Tobacco so Popular?
The reason tobacco is so popular and integrated into Western society (time for your smoke break!) is probably attributable to its characteristics. While being addictive, destructive, and often fatal, it is only mildly psychoactive. Nicotine affects specific signaling pathways in the brain that lead to a calm sense of well-being. In addition, there is a sort of novelty about it, aside from what the media has done to glamorize it. I'd venture to say the ability to glorify tobacco arose from its original, natural draw. It was easy capital. Upon observing someone chewing or smoking tobacco while remaining largely coherent, many a curiosity would have been piqued. And with no users becoming inebriated or showing immediate signs of suffering, the public could be convinced it was safe— or even healthy—to use.
Oddly enough, tobacco is much more deadly than cannabis. While being more psychoactive, cannabis has protective agents against carcinogenicity. For being so popular, smoking tobacco and using tobacco products is extremely carcinogenic.
Nicotine by Itself
Many people may not know that nicotine itself isn't that dangerous. It is, however, a complex chemical, and there is still much to be understood about it. Here are some things we do know about nicotine:
- It is an addictive chemical.
- By itself, it is at most mildly carcinogenic.
- In low doses it is a stimulant, in high doses, a relaxant.
- It stimulates the release of glucose from the liver and adrenaline from the adrenal glands.
- It affects various chemical messengers in the brain, leading to its psychoactive effects.
Today, products containing nicotine are becoming more available to consumers that do not require combustion, such as vaporizers, e-cigarettes, adhesive patches, and gum. This eliminates the brunt of the carcinogenic risk with smoking tobacco, although research is still being done to determine if nicotine is a tumor promoter or not. And while vaporizers are so often touted as a safe alternative, "vapers" should be aware that there are potential risks with these products as well.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance on planet Earth. Drinking coffee is the most popular method of administration, but it is also present in tea leaves, kola nuts, cocoa beans, and other plants. Like alcohol, there is no clear date for a human discovery of caffeine, and it appears to have been used since prehistory. Each caffeine-containing plant has its own story of ancient discovery—tea leaves in ancient China, kola in West Africa, and yerba mate and cacao in the Americas. The earliest evidence of drinking coffee dates back to the Sufi Muslim monasteries in 15th-century Yemen, though the first to drink it were probably Ethiopians before them. The Sufis used the emboldening drink to aid them during worship.
Coffee quickly found a home in the communities of 16th century Arabia as "Schools of the Wise"—an endearing nickname for coffee houses—sprang up throughout the region. It had garnered a culture of entertainment and civility, as the patrons of these proto-Starbuckses would play chess, engage in conversation, and enjoy performances together. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe. It was received with hesitation, until Pope Clement VIII tried a cup of coffee and gave it his approval. After that, coffee continued its position as the favorite drink of civil discussion and persons of distinguished erudition. In the 1700's, coffee continued to spread across the globe, and its popularity was bolstered in America after the Boston Tea Party.
Other vessels of caffeine have sprouted up around the world, some of them long before coffee. Cocoa beans, which contain caffeine in lesser amounts, were used by the Olmec civilization over 4,000 years ago. Yerba mate, a drink made from a type of holly plant was also brewed by the Guaraní of South America before Spanish arrival. Kola nuts have been a fixture in West African culture since ancient times. And since tea was discovered in ancient China, it has seeped into most every corner of the globe.
Caffeine's social acceptance is likely due to its availability in nature and its role as a nervous system stimulant. Many stimulants have been popular with humans over time—we have historically valued substances that keep us awake—and caffeine is simply the most popular of these. And though it is an effective stimulant, caffeine is not so intense as to disrupt normal social behavior. Substances containing caffeine have long been thought to have medicinal benefits.
And our ancestors weren't entirely wrong—caffeine can actually improve mental function. The psychoactive effect of caffeine comes from its similarity to adenosine, the molecule that builds up in your brain over time and makes you feel tired. Caffeine binds to sites in the brain where adenosine usually attaches, preventing it from slowing nervous activity. With caffeine bound to it, the brain fires more rapidly and also signals the body to release adrenaline, which is likely one of the main reasons for performance enhancement. Caffeine is also used to help cure headaches and improve breathing in asthmatics. Aside from that, there are a slew of medical uses for caffeine (including preventing Parkinson's disease in non-smokers) though some of these require more research than others.
But even though caffeine may improve mental function for a time, it does not come without its own menagerie of side-effects. Most people are aware that excessive, prolonged caffeine use can cause irritability, lethargy, and headaches as part of the withdrawal after a sudden cessation. But an abrupt caffeine cessation can also cause blood vessel dilation and even clinical depression in extreme cases. Other problems with using caffeine include increased stomach acidity, increased risk of osteoporosis, possible pregnancy complications, and problems for those with a sensitive heart or colon.
You can check out this list of possible caffeine side effects from WebMD.
For the most part, drinking a cup of coffee a day (about 400 mg of caffeine) is considered safe. Still, you should ask your doctor if you have any concerns.