By Ina Woolcott
A psychoactive drug, or psychotropic substance is a substance that primarily acts upon the central nervous system, altering the brain function, leading to short term alterations in perception, consciousness, mood, and behaviour be it a chemical or natural substance.
Some drugs are used for recreational reasons to alter one’s consciousness – such as coffee, alcohol, nicotine and cannabis. Entheogens are used for spiritual reasons e.g. hallucinogenic mushrooms or the peyote cactus. There is also prescribed medication, e.g. narcotics to control pain, anti-depressants, and anti-psychotics to treat neurological and psychiatric illnesses.
Stimulants and anti-depressants can frequently become highly addictive, causing chemical dependency which may lead to substance abuse. On the flip side, psychedelics can help treat and even cure such addictions.
Drug use is not a new thing at all – archaeological evidence indicates that psychoactive substances have been used as far back as at least 10,000 years – if not more, we will never know for sure. Historical evidence of cultural use dates back 5,000 years.
While psychoactives are widely used for medicinal purposes, it has been suggested that the urge to expand ones mind, to alter one’s consciousness is as primary as the drive to eat, drink and sexual desire. Some may accuse marketing, easy access or the pressures of modern life as to why humans use so many psychoactive’s daily, however, looking back in time (or even to children with their desire for spinning and swinging etc) it is not hard to see that the drive to alter one’s state of mind is universal and timeless.
This isn’t only the case with humans – in fact, numerous animals consume different psychoactive plants, berries, animals, and even fermented fruit, clearly becoming intoxicated. E.g. reindeer love fly agaric mushrooms. Hence the association of ‘flying reindeer’. Traditional legends of sacred plants frequently refer to animals that introduced humans to their use. Biology proposes an evolutionary link between psychoactive plants and animals, as to why these chemicals and their receptors are found within the nervous system
For 1000’s of years, people have studied psychoactive drugs, both by observation and ingestion. Sadly however, humanity is bitterly divided when it comes to psychoactive drugs. Their value and use has for a long time been a subject of major philosophical and moral dispute – even to the point of war. Many lives and rites have been lost, especially those of native and indigenous peoples.