In a public health context

Psychoactive drugs are substances that alter the mental state of humans after ingestion. There are a wide variety of those substances, both naturally occurring and synthesized, including tobacco, alcoholic beverages, coffee, tea, chocolate, and some spices, as well as substances that are legally available only through medical channels, such as benzodiazepides, cannabinols, opiates, and cocaine. Such substances often have other use values along with their psychoactive properties. Users may like the taste or the image of themselves that the use of those substances conveys. Substance use may be a medium of sociability (Partanen) or part of a religious ritual. Some substances have other useful properties; alcohol, for example, is a source of calories and is used as a solvent in many tinctures.

Psychoactive drugs differ in their metabolic pathways and mechanisms of action in the human body, the strength of their effects, and the states of mind and feelings they induce. However, the effects of drug use also are highly dependent on the pattern of use and on the set and setting, that is, the expectations of the user and of others who are present and the context of use (Zinberg). Although the psychoactive effect of tobacco may not register in the consciousness of a habituated cigarette smoker, in other circumstances the effect of tobacco use may be so strong that the user is rendered unconscious, as early Spanish observers reported in describing tobacco use among native South Americans (Robicsek).

Psychoactive substances frequently are valued by potential consumers well above the cost of production. On the one hand, this means that taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs have long been an important fiscal resource for the state. On the other hand, it means that there are substantial incentives for an illicit market to emerge in places where the sale of drugs is forbidden or stringently restricted.

A consideration of drugs in a public health context may start with an examination of general cultural patternings and understandings of drug use. This entry continues by discussing the major approaches to limiting harm from drug use. The entry concludes with a characterization of the major directions in the development of drug policies in the United States and other industrialized countries.

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