Drugwise: Growing Up Straight in a Chemical Culture
 Author:   Jim Parker
Publisher:   Do It Now Foundation

 Publication Date:

  September 2003

 Catalog No:


Building Blocks

Before we can say much about drugs one way or the other, though, we should agree on basic concepts and definitions.

This stuff will apply, in one way or another, to every one of the drugs we'll be talking about in this booklet.

In fact, the first word we need to define is "drug" itself.

Drug. A drug is a chemical that changes the way that people think or feel. Drugs can be pills, potions, or powders--even gases and liquid chemicals fall under this definition.

The only exception is food. That's why sugar isn't considered a drug, even though it can change the way we think and feel. On the other hand, alcohol is a drug, since it doesn't have real nutritional value.

Tolerance. This is a process that occurs when the body begins to adapt to, or tolerate, a particular chemical. As tolerance develops, a user has to use more of a drug to get high, or achieve other desired effects.

Dependence. When someone uses a drug again and again, he or she begins to feel a need--physical, psychological, or both--for it. Some drugs (marijuana, for example) produce a type of psychological dependence. Others, like heroin and alcohol, cause physical dependence, too.

What's the difference? Not much--or a lot, depending...

  • Physically dependent users get sick when they can't smoke, snort, swallow, or shoot their favorite poison.
  • Psychologically-dependent users suffer from boredom, depression, or just plain old funky feelings.

Addiction. An intense physical or psychological need for a drug. People who are addicted to drugs are sometimes called addicts. People addicted to alcohol are called alcoholics.

Withdrawal. The process that starts when an addicted user stops taking a drug. In withdrawal, all kinds of physical and emotional problems can come churning to the surface. The physical symptoms of withdrawal can last days or weeks, depending on the drug. Psychological effects--usually anxiety, irritability, or depression--can last a lot longer, even months or years.

Overdose. Dangerously high doses of a drug. Overdoses are always serious medical emergencies, and can cause coma or death, depending on the drug.

Intoxication. The technical term for being drunk or high. Intoxication often involves an increasing loss of control over such basic body functions as balance and walking, along with changes in mood and behavior. Look closely at the word "intoxication," and you'll see where it comes from and what it refers to: the effects of a toxin, or poison, on the body.

Types of Drugs

Basically, five types of drugs are used and abused:

  • Depressants. Drugs that depress (or slow down) the brain and central nervous system, easing tension and causing sleep. Because depressants slow down both the body and brain, they're sometimes called "downers." The most commonly-used depressant drug in the world is alcohol.
  • Stimulants. Stimulant drugs do the opposite. They stimulate (or speed up) the firing of cells in the brain and central nervous system, blocking feelings of hunger and fatigue. Stimulants are often called "speed" or "uppers."
  • Hallucinogens. Drugs in this category cause hallucinations or other sensory distortions in the way users think and perceive the world. Marijuana is a mild hallucinogen, while LSD and other chemicals are much more intense.
  • Inhalants. A wide range of chemicals can cause feelings of intoxication when they're inhaled or sniffed, including gases and industrial solvents. The effects of inhalants are similar to the effects of alcohol, but are more dangerous, since they kick in so suddenly and are so unpredictable.
  • Narcotics. Even though some people call all drugs "narcotics," technically, they're wrong. Narcotics are natural or synthetic members of a single drug family, which originated with the drug opium. Most were developed, and are still used, as medical drugs to relieve pain.

Continue with Chapter 3: Facing Facts
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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health published by Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.