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

 Publication Date:

  September 2003

 Catalog No:


Locks & Keys

Now that we've covered the different types of drugs people use to get high, let's talk briefly about how drugs work in the body and brain, and why.

Because of all the things we've learned in the past few years about drugs, the most interesting--and the most useful, in understanding the attraction of drugs and avoiding the problems they can cause--has come from research into how drugs work in the body and brain.

Brain Basics

For a long time, people assumed that drugs and alcohol just sort of "did something" to change the way we think and feel. Today, we know better.

Researchers now know that drugs and alcohol tilt the balance of chemicals that relay impulses from cell to cell in the brain and central nervous system. And changes here can cause major changes in the way we think and feel.

Drugs alter this balance in a number of different ways. Stimulants, for example, increase levels of transmitters that regulate arousal, like dopamine and acetylcholine.

Other drugs, like minor tranquilizers, act like tiny "keys" that fit the brain's own system of internal relaxation "locks," which increase the activity of neurotransmitters that help regulate emotions.

Other drugs plug into receptor sites elsewhere in the brain and central nervous system.

If that were all that drugs did--just slipping inside little relaxation "locks" in our heads for a while, then letting things slide back to normal--they wouldn't be that big a deal or that bad an idea.

What makes them a big deal and a bad idea is that once the chemistry of the brain gets out of balance, it can be tough getting it back into balance. Some long-time users never seem to get it right.


Still, knowing how drugs work in the body doesn't answer a question that's just as important: Why do people want them there?

Good question. And when you blow away all the smoke and confusion about drugs and drinking, what you find is a good (and simple) answer: because they just don't feel good about themselves.

Maybe they think they're too something: too fat or too skinny, too dumb or too smart, too ugly or too pretty (yes, there are even some of those), too short or too tall, too poor or too rich (yep, them, too), too young or too old.

Or maybe there's something they want to change and drugs look like an easy answer or a fast shortcut.

Maybe they're wired emotionally and drink or take tranquilizers to calm down. Or maybe they don't feel like they're measuring up to their own (or someone else's) standards, and take cocaine to get more of an "edge." Or maybe they're just bored and smoke pot to make their lives seem less dead.

No matter why people begin to drink or take drugs, after a while another reason kicks in for continuing: They think they need to.

And the problem with thinking that is it just isn't true.

Continue with Chapter 5: Magic Act
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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.