Why the Term ‘Drug’ is Difficult to Clearly Define

why the term 'drug' is difficult to define

‘Drugs’, much like ‘religion’, evade a precise definition. There are standard, dictionary definitions of the term ‘drug’, either a substance (other than food) that influences motor, sensory, cognitive, or other bodily processes, or a substance that is used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease. Drugs are generally understood to be either psychoactive drugs or medicinal drugs. However, the two categories clearly cross over: many drugs are both psychoactive and medicinal, such as morphine. But societies also make distinctions, normative in nature, within these categories. For example, some psychoactive drugs are deemed good by some and bad by others. Drinking alcohol may be socially acceptable, but recreational heroin use generally is not.

The difficulty in defining the term ‘drug’ is one essential topic in the philosophy of drugs. This area of philosophy, like all others, probes our assumptions about basic phrases we casually use, like ‘consciousness’, ‘time’, ‘God’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’, inviting us to see what such terms mean so that we can meaningfully apply them when using them in the context of other discussions. The term ‘drug’ is no different. It carries so many varying cultural connotations and judgements, as well as conceptual ambiguities, so that two people – within the same culture, even – can disagree as to what kinds of substances count as drugs and which ones don’t. This raises an important question: Are there really any common factors that apply to the designation of ‘drug’, regardless of cultural and personal differences in the interpretation of this term?

The psychedelic researcher Giorgio Samorini summarises this difficulty in his book Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness (2002):

From all this we can deduce that the definition of what constitutes a drug is dependent on its encompassing culture. Even the effects of drugs are influenced by the cultural environment in which they are experienced. For this reason it is extremely difficult to formulate a scientific and general definition of the concepts of drug and drugged. It is also probable that some of these difficulties are reinforced by excessive generalization regarding the drug phenomenon; that is to say, many behavioral phenomena are forced together under this umbrella concept, when in reality they are sharply distinct from it. What a long road we have yet to walk before reaching an objective and scientific analysis of the drug phenomenon!

Samorini offers up the example of the various tribes native to the Amazon basin, which traditionally use tobacco (referred to as mapacho), as well as the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, both of which are considered medicines, rather than drugs. And while those outside the culture may also consider ayahuasca, at least, medicinal, it may still be called a kind of psychedelic drug. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon consider drugs to be those substances brought by Westerners, including alcohol and cigarettes. In contrast, those Westerners may not consider alcohol and cigarettes to be drugs at all since they are both legal and normalised. This reminds me of the second episode of the satirical British comedy series Brass Eye, which is about drugs, where creator Chris Morris, playing an undercover reporter, is seen in a pub with a pint in his hand, and he says: “People say that alcohol’s a drug. It’s not a drug, it’s a drink!”

Indeed, we see the exclusion of alcohol from the category of drugs through the popular use of the phrase “drugs and alcohol”. This is a false distinction, however. There is no reason that alcohol, based on its effects, should not count as a drug. Yet the ‘reason’ here is cultural, and as Samorini underlines, this is reason enough to consider a substance a non-drug. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida likewise points to this problem in his work The Rhetoric of Drugs (1990): “Already one must conclude that the concept of drug is a non-scientific concept, that it is instituted on the basis of moral or political evaluations.”

It is also popular for people to adopt the view of the indigenous people who ritually use psychedelic plants and mushrooms that these substances are medicines or ‘plant medicines’, and not drugs. This may be motivated by the wish to separate the healing, life-altering experiences induced by these plants from what are considered the recreational or destructive experiences provided by other illicit substances. And this is understandable since psychedelics are the most prohibited sorts of drugs in most of the world – Schedule I substances in the United States, meaning they are seen to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse – and hence, by trying to get others to view them as medicines, which is becoming increasingly evidence-based, the public and politicians are more likely to approve of their legalisation for (at the very least) medical use.

Yet with even the broadest definition of a drug, either in terms of a psychoactive drug or a medicinal drug, we can still consider sacred plants and mushrooms to be drugs. There is no intrinsic reason for this to devalue the ayahuasca experience, for instance; this merely describes an aspect of the experience, just as sacred and medicine designate other aspects.

Moving from cultural factors to conceptual ones, consider the widespread assumption that a drug has to be an external agent that enters your body. Why is this the case? There are endogenous substances in the body that affect us as external agents do. Morphine is endogenous in animals, including humans. And we can modulate neurotransmitters in our brain (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline), affecting our subjective experience in mild, moderate, and intense ways; we can do so through meditation, yoga, exercise, fasting, and music. Why, then, should we make a sharp distinction between neurotransmitters and drugs? At the start of this discussion, food was excluded from substances that can count as drugs. But this may also seem arbitrary, given that some foods can have psychoactive effects, like nutmeg, sugar, chocolate, and chili peppers. The psychedelic researcher Dennis McKenna describes the ubiquity of drugs as follows:

All experience is a drug experience. Whether it’s mediated by our own [endogenous] drugs, or whether it’s mediated by substances that we ingest that are found in plants, cognition, consciousness, the working of the brain, it’s all a chemically mediated process. Life itself is a drug experience.

Thus formulated, the distinction between drug and non-drug collapses. From this standpoint, every experience is mediated by some chemical agent, either inner or outer. If you want to refer to every such agent as a drug, then this involves a significant shift in perspective, as it is definitely in conflict with the cultural consensus view of drugs, irrespective of which culture you’re examining.

The ancient Greek term pharmakon is instructive here. This term can be translated as “drug”, yet its meaning is paradoxical, for it refers to something which is both a “poison” and a “remedy”. When we closely inspect any drug, we will find it has this paradoxical nature. If we accept McKenna’s broad inclusion of endogenous chemicals in the category of drugs, then any drug we think of – dopamine, morphine, heroin, psilocybin, amphetamine – can be curative or harmful, depending on the context in which it is used – how it is used. This ties into Samorini’s point that the effects of the drug can be influenced by the cultural environment in which they’re taken. We see this most clearly with psychedelics, where differing cultural contexts can lead to qualitatively different experiences; in one culture, a healing experience, and in another, a traumatising one for which support and meaning-making are lacking.

It is useful to keep in mind the concept of pharmakon when discussing drugs because it allows for a much more nuanced conversation. It is simplistic and parochial to make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ drugs because all such substances are good and bad depending on the way people use them. When used with respect and ceremony, tobacco does not become an addictive plant for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon; yet the same cannot be said of Western use. When used for the purposes of healing, and when perceived as sacred, psychedelics can mend fractured minds; but when administered for the purposes of mind control, as by the CIA, then these substances can fracture healthy minds.

The term ‘drug’ is, ostensibly, difficult to clearly define, but this doesn’t mean we should refrain from challenging the culturally relative conceptions of the term. Instead, we should think of drugs and their effects with greater scope and consistency, so that we can have more mature discussions about other topics in the philosophy of drugs, including the ethics of drug prohibition and legalisation, moral issues surrounding drug use and addiction, and the existential nature of the human impulse to alter consciousness.

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