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Drugs and the Whole Person

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What is a Drug?

The term drug is often a term of convenience. Substances that are medically approved for the treatment of disease or relief from pain are readily labeled drugs, as are the substances obtained from a black market for recreational use. However, the connotation of the word drug in these two cases is frequently different, and we regard the two types of drug users differently.

Although most people will accept the term drug as a descriptor of tobacco, many will not accept this use of the term for alcohol. These difficulties are com¬pounded when we examine the nature of some substances that we use repeatedly yet fail to recognize them as having druglike properties (e.g., coffee, which contains the drug caffeine). In the scientific sense, a drug is any substance that, because of its chemical nature, alters the structure or functioning of a living organism. This broad definition encompasses a wide variety of substances; it will be basic to all dis¬cussions of drugs throughout this book. For practical purposes we usually exclude food from being considered a drug, even though it technically fits this definition.

In a study of 1091 families in a New Jersey community, Dr. Stanley Einstein attempted to assess which of several definitions of the word drug was most widely accepted. The data in Table 1.1 reflect their responses (Einstein, 1972, p. 402).

Table 1.1: Drug Definitions by a Community Sample
"The term 'drug' has been defined in many ways. Which of the following definitions do you think is most appropriate?"

Definition
n
Percent
A drug is any substance used as a medicine or in making medicine.
128
12
A drug is any chemical compound used for the relief of pain or suffering.
70
6
A drug is any narcotic substance or preparation, especially
one that is habit forming.
298
27
A drug is any substance, other than food, that by its chemical nature alters the structure or functioning of a living organism.
463
43
A drug is any biologically active substance used in the treatment or prevention of illness or for recreation or pleasure.

132
12

Based on the responses to this questionnaire, many respondents (43 percent) do accept the broad scientific definition as appropriate. Interestingly, however, 27 percent of the respondents felt that only one class of substances (narcotics) are drugs. To say the least, a certain amount of confusion exists.


Although many substances fall within the definition of the word drug, the focus of this book will be limited to one class of these substances, those that alter the mood, personality, or behavior of an individual; it is unlikely that a substance that does not affect one of these dimensions will be used recreationally or have any abuse potential. These effects are called psychotropic, or mind altering, and the drugs that produce these effects are termed psychoactive drugs. The discussions that follow are about psychoactive drugs.



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