Why does society condemn the use of consciousness-altering drugs?

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28 November
12:23
November
2016

It’s very strange – because you seem to get intoxication everywhere. It’s one of the few truly universal aspects of human activity, that we seem to enjoy finding things that alter our consciousness and taking them, be it a mild buzz or something much more extreme. But at the same time, you’ll always find ones that are considered totally inappropriate or taboo. 

In our culture we’re fine with someone using a highly consciousness-altering drug, namely alcohol – which has some really complex effects on the brain: simultaneously causing suppression of activation via the neurotransmitter GABA [gamma-Aminobutyric acid], meaning it’s a sedative, but also causing rises in cortisol, giving you stimulation. You simultaneously get an “up” from it, but it has this sedative effect at the same time. In fact it’s this sedative effect that kills you. 

If you have a lot of alcohol, you will eventually suppress brainstem function, stop breathing, and die. But we’re cool with that. It kills a lot of people, and causes a whole lot of other health problems, but that’s fine – yet we’re very down on a lot of other drugs. And this seems to be common across cultures: cultures that don’t like alcohol are absolutely fine with coffee, but actually caffeine is an unbelievably addictive substance. 

We used to think nicotine was fine, and you don’t have to go back that far for things like opium to be sold as pharmaceutical products that calm your nerves. So it’s completely inconsistent, and what it really seems like is that our attitudes to particular psychoactive drugs are far more to do with worries about who is doing them and why they’re doing it, and what we’re doing ourselves so consider acceptable, and what the whims of the people in charge are, than anything to do with the empirical understanding of the actual risks or effects of it. 

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