A History of Drug Use : Mind-Altering Drugs in Social Context, Eric Shepperd, 2017

A History of Drug Use : Mind-Altering Drugs in Social Context

Eric Shepperd

January 21, 2017, 26 p.


It seems that an intrinsic property of consciousness is a desire to alter itself. The natural world is full of tools for changing the functioning of the mind, and both humans and nonhuman animals have used many different drugs throughout history. Some are derived directly from plant or animal sources, while others are refined extracts, or synthesized by purely chemical methods.

Many of the drugs in use today are applied primarily for physiologically therapeutic purposes, while others have primarily psychological components, or a combination thereof. Psychoactive drugs can be used to alter one’s state of consciousness for medical, psychiatric, recreational, or spiritual applications. In different contexts, the same psychoactive drug can even serve novel functions – sometimes even paradoxically. With historical and archaeological evidence suggesting an extensive history of human drug use, it is conceivable that human culture itself has been impacted by these tools. Spiritual traditions in particular often involve altered states of consciousness, with culture having mechanisms to produce same. The present research will explore the cultural-historical use of selected drugs in relation to their impact on social character and mystical tradition. As a useful tool to facilitate mystical experiences, psychoactive drugs are a crucial cross-cultural part of the historical development of spirituality, and can present a useful tool for the promotion of social solidarity and psychic wellbeing in the world today.

Terminology & Classification of Psychoactive Drugs

Psychoactive drugs are generally classified into three primary categories, grouped by effect : stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens (Julien 2001). Stimulants serve to increase activity in the central nervous system (or CNS), promoting wakefulness, energy, and arousal. Depressants present the converse – suppressing activity of the CNS and promoting feelings of calm, drowsiness, slowed reactions, and often a corresponding physiological reaction.

Hallucinogens act primarily on the user’s perceptual set, altering sensual information and interpretation – distorting concrete stimuli or producing novel sensations ex nihilo. The classification of a drug can vary depending on its application, with many drugs falling into several categories – sometimes paradoxically – depending on dosage.

Drugs can also be classified more specifically by their use (ibid.). Anxiolytic (or sedative) drugs are intended to reduce sensations of anxiety, often by acting as a CNS depressant, without necessarily affecting wakefulness. Explicit examples of this class include benzodiazepines and barbiturates, but drugs like alcohol can also have this effect. Benzodiazepines can also act as Hypnotic (or soporific) drugs, serving to reduce wakefulness, often used as a sleep aid. Analgesic drugs, such as opiates, block physical pain, while Anesthetic drugs block pain and other signals, with some producing unconsciousness – allowing the user to avoid both physical discomfort and emotional trauma in serious injury or surgery. Mood-altering drugs are commonly used in psychiatry, including: antidepressants such as SSRI
and SNRI analogs (selective serotonin and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, respectively) – for managing clinical depression, dysthymia, and related persistent states of low mood; mood stabilizers such as lithium and lamotrigine – for regulating and limiting extreme mood dynamics commonly seen in bipolar disorder; and antipsychotics such as risperidone, which are used to suppress mania and manage psychotic delusions. Stimulant drugs have been used for promote wakefulness and attention, with many – like cocaine and MDMA – acting as euphoriants , producing sensations of elation, heightened activity, or even delusions of grandeur.


Discussion and Conclusion

With an assortment of psychoactive drugs readily available since at least the paleolithic period (potentially much earlier) it is doubtless the case that human society has developed under the influence. Cross-cultural historical evidence suggests that experiences with altered states of consciousness are common to peoples around the world, with psychoactive drugs playing a substantial role. Entheogenic drugs, in appropriate social context, tend to cultivate a sensation of universal unity, pro-social sentiment, and a suspension of preconceived social constructions of reality (Godlaski 2011; Sayin 2014). With similar themes in common with both ancient and contemporary faith traditions, these experiences are highly compatible with the exercise of spiritual life. In this light, the phenomenological influence of entheogenic drugs may in fact lie at the root of many of the world’s spiritual-religious traditions. Far from diminishing the profundity of the exercise, this notion draws together the commonality of all the world’s disparate belief systems; while the specific elements may differ, the core experience is shared. To wit, the cultural independence of spiritual potential is evidence of the inherently spiritual nature of the human mind. With each having the neurological equipment and tools at their disposal, such
experiences are accessible to all.

In an increasingly hyper-rational, hyper-individual world, the popular exercise of spirituality is in decline. Neoliberal capitalism, with its ideology of alienation, separation, and commodification, thrives by a divide-and-conquer strategy. Indoctrinated by such a system, the individual is disinclined to see commonality, and rendered largely powerless to unite in resistance against oppression. To overcome the totalizing influence of the hegemonic status quo would require a fundamental reorientation of the social character of Western society. Given the entrenchment of currently dominant powers, it is unlikely that any traditional political solution will be possible. With this in mind, the point of greatest influence may be to address the ontology of the individual through experiential learning. Having been shown the common nature of humanity and its biosphere, it becomes more difficult to sustain the cognitive dissonance necessary to consent to its continued exploitation. Should a critical mass come to this level of awareness, this author believes substantive change may become possible. The potential for bottom-up ideological disruption resulting from a popular uprising of practical spirituality suggests the need for further research and thought. In plainly colloquial terms: drugs could help save the world.