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Drugs: From Sacred Rituals to the Consumer Society

Since time immemorial, drugs have had a place in ancient cultures, used primarily for traditional purposes. The changes in consciousness caused by psychotropic plants were an integral part of sacred rituals and the quest for transcendence. Sacred texts in India refer to the use of hemp and hallucinogenic mushrooms, while in Latin America, mescaline extracted from Peyote or even ragweed in Europe were consumed for ritual purposes.

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Alongside religious rituals, many psychotropic drugs were used for therapeutic purposes. The Greeks used opium for therapeutic purposes, while cannabis had medicinal applications in China, among other examples.

However, in modern times, the difficulties associated with drug use have accelerated, introducing new uses and abuses. Two major factors have contributed to this phenomenon: progress in chemistry, which made it possible to isolate molecules to produce increasingly concentrated substances, and the evolution of host cultures.

With the advent of modern medicine and medications, psychoactive substances have become an issue in the struggle for influence between their medical use (anti-depressants, anxiolytics, etc.) and their popular use outside of prescription. These products, in high demand, have become a source of profits for drug manufacturers, but also for illegal traffickers.

This high demand has generated debates over the regulation of drug use, with some believing that addiction is primarily produced by exposure to products, while others argue that addiction depends on the person themselves.

The advent of the consumer society in the 20th century placed notions such as pleasure and performance at the heart of society, encouraging hyperconsumption behavior, including in terms of psychoactive substances. This trend has been described as an “addictive society.” If the factors of individual vulnerability are undeniable, it is difficult to absolve industrial producers and distributors of their social responsibility.

photo of blue benzodiazepine pills

From a policy perspective, a system of laws and regulations has been built around the issue of illicit drug addiction, but it has become obsolete in many countries. Current policies are dominated by two imperatives: safety and health, pushing states to more regulation and control over addictive behaviors, instead of focusing on risk reduction, prevention or education.

With regard to legal drugs, such as tobacco and especially alcohol, governments seek a balance between the economic interests of the sectors and public health issues. The National Smoking Reduction Plan is an example, with visible effects of a global policy to regulate tobacco consumption. However, for alcohol, the balance seems to tip in favor of the tobacco lobby and its economic interests, at least under certain governments.

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