Recreational drug use

Recreational drug use

Recreational drug use is the use of a drug, usually psychoactive, with the intention of creating or enhancing recreational experience. Such use is controversial, however, often being considered to be also drug abuse, and it is often illegal. Also, it may overlap with other uses, such as medicinal (including self medication), performance enhancement, and entheogenic (spiritual).

Drugs commonly considered capable of recreational use include alcohol and tobacco, and drugs within the scope of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and Convention on Psychotropic Substances.[vague] The fact that caffeine use may be considered recreational is often overlooked. Psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel refers to intoxication as the "fourth drive", arguing that the human instinct to seek mind-altering substances (psychoactive drugs) has so much force and persistence that it functions like the human desire to satisfy hunger, thirst and the need for shelter.[1]



The concept of "responsible drug use" is that a person can use recreational drugs with reduced or eliminated risk of negatively affecting other aspects of one's life or other people's lives. This generally takes place at a party or party-like event. Advocates of this philosophy point to the many well-known artists and intellectuals who have used drugs, experimentally or otherwise, with few detrimental effects on their lives. Critics argue that the drugs are escapist—and dangerous, unpredictable and sometimes addictive, and have negative and profound effects in geographic areas well beyond the location of the user. These criticisms can apply to a number of non drug related addictions and behavioral abuse disorders. Responsible drug use only becomes drug abuse when the use of the substance significantly interferes with the user's daily life.

Responsible drug use advocates argue that users should not take drugs at the same time as activities such as driving, swimming, operating machinery, or other activities which are unsafe without a sober state. Responsible drug use is emphasized as a primary prevention technique in harm-reduction drug policies. Harm-reduction policies were popularized in the late 1980s although they began in the 1970s counter-culture where users were distributed cartoons explaining responsible drug use and consequences of irresponsible drug use.[2] Another issue is that the illegality of drugs in itself may also cause social and economic consequences for those using them—the drugs may be "cut" with adulturants and the purity varies wildly, making overdoses more likely—and legal regulation of drug production and distribution would alleviate these and other dangers of illegal drug use.[3] Harm reduction seeks to minimize the harm that can occur through the use of various drugs, whether legal (e.g. alcohol and nicotine), or illegal (e.g. heroin and cocaine). For example, people who inject illicit drugs can minimize harm to both themselves and members of the community through proper injecting technique, using new needles and syringes each time, and through proper disposal of all injecting equipment.

Types of Drugs

Common psychoactives

The drugs most popular for recreational use worldwide are:[4][dated info]

  • caffeine (from coffee, tea, and other plant sources) – Legal in all parts of the world, but not consumed by members of some religions.[citation needed]
  • cannabis (commonly known as marijuana; contains cannabinoids, primarily tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)) – Illegal in most parts of the world.
  • ethanol (commonly referred to as (ethyl) alcohol, produced through fermentation by yeast in alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer) – Legal but regulated in most parts of the world, and illegal in several Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Libya, Sudan and Saudi Arabia; not consumed by members of some religions. In chemistry alcohol can refer to more than ethyl alcohol. Methyl (wood) alcohol is poisonous.
  • tobacco (contains nicotine and beta-carboline alkaloids) – Legal but regulated in most parts of the world and not consumed by members of some religions.[5][non-primary source needed]
  • opiates and opioids – Generally legal by prescription only, for relief of pain. These drugs include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and others; some opiates are illegal in some countries but used for medical purposes in others, such as diacetylmorphine (heroin).
  • cocaine – A stimulant derived from the coca plant in South America. Use of the stimulating coca leaf, but not cocaine, is legal in Peru and Bolivia. Cocaine is illegal in most parts of the world, but derivatives such as lidocaine and novocaine are used in medicine and dentistry for local anesthesia.

Other psychoactives


Depressants are psychoactive drugs which temporarily diminish the function or activity of a specific part of the body or mind.[6][citation needed] Examples of these kinds of effects may include anxiolysis, sedation, and hypotension. Due to their effects typically having a "down" quality to them, depressants are also occasionally referred to as "downers". Stimulants or "uppers", which increase mental and/or physical function, are in stark contrast to depressants and are considered to be their functional opposites. Depressants are widely used throughout the world as prescription medicines and as illicit substances.[citation needed] When these are used, effects may include anxiolysis, analgesia, sedation, somnolence, cognitive/memory impairment, dissociation, muscle relaxation, lowered blood pressure/heart rate, respiratory depression, anesthesia, and anticonvulsant effects.[citation needed] Some are also capable of inducing feelings of euphoria. Depressants exert their effects through a number of different pharmacological mechanisms, the most prominent of which include facilitation of GABA and/or opioid activity, and inhibition of adrenergic, histamine and/or acetylcholine activity.


Antihistamines (or "histamine antagonists") inhibit the release or action of histamine. "Antihistamine" can be used to describe any histamine antagonist, but the term is usually reserved for the classical antihistamines that act upon the H1 histamine receptor. Antihistamines are used as treatment for allergies. Allergies are caused by an excessive response of the body to allergens, such as the pollen released by grasses and trees. An allergic reaction causes release of histamine by the body. Other uses of antihistamines are to help with normal symptoms of insect stings even if there is no allergic reaction. Their recreational appeal exists mainly due to their anticholinergic properties, that induce anxiolysis and in some cases such as diphenhydramine, chlorpheniramine, and orphenadrine, a characteristic euphoria at moderate doses.

Hallucinations and possibly delirium resembling the effects of Datura stramonium can result if the drug is taken in much higher than therapeutical dosages.

Antihistamines are widely available over the counter at drug stores (without a prescription), in the form of allergy medication and some cough medicines. They are sometimes used in combination with other substances such as alcohol. The most common unsupervised use of antihistamines in terms of volume and percentage of the total is perhaps in parallel to the medicinal use of some antihistamines to stretch out and intensify the effects of opioids and depressants. The most commonly used are hydroxyzine, mainly to stretch out a supply of other drugs, as in medical use, and the above-mentioned ethanolamine and alkylamine-class first-generation antihistamines, which are once again as in the 1950s the subject of medical research into their anti-depressant properties.

For all of the above reasons, the use of medicinal scopolamine for recreational uses is also seen.


Analgesics (also known as "painkillers") are used to relieve pain (achieve analgesia). The word analgesic derives from Greek "αν-" (an-, "without") and "άλγος" (álgos, "pain"). Analgesic drugs act in various ways on the peripheral and central nervous systems; they include paracetamol (para-acetylaminophenol, also known in the US as acetaminophen), the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as the salicylates, and opioid drugs such as hydrocodone, codeine, heroin and oxycodone. Some further examples of the brand name prescription opiates and opioid analgesics that may be used recreationally include Vicodin, Lortab, Norco (hydrocodone), Avinza, Kapanol (morphine), Opana, Paramorphan (oxymorphone), Dilaudid, Palladone (hydromorphone), and OxyContin (oxycodone), kratom.


Tranquilizers (GABAergics):


Hallucinogens can be divided into three broad categories: psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. They can cause subjective changes in perception, thought, emotion and consciousness. Unlike other psychoactive drugs such as stimulants and opioids, hallucinogens do not merely amplify familiar states of mind, but induce experiences that differ from those of ordinary consciousness, often compared to non-ordinary forms of consciousness such as trance, meditation, conversion experiences, and dreams. A typical "hallucination" induced by a psychedelic drug is more accurately described as a modification of regular perception, and the subject is usually quite aware of the illusory and personal nature of their perceptions. Deliriants, such as diphenhydramine and atropine, may cause hallucinations in the proper sense.[citation needed]

Psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants have a long worldwide history of use within medicinal and religious traditions. They are used in shamanic forms of ritual healing and divination, in initiation rites, and in the religious rituals of syncretistic movements such as União do Vegetal, Santo Daime, and the Native American Church. When used in religious practice, psychedelic drugs, as well as other substances like tobacco, are referred to as entheogens. In some US states and on some reservations, certain hallucinogens such as peyote are classified as part of recognized religious ceremonies and are therefore considered legal if used in such ceremonies.[citation needed]

Starting in the mid-20th century, psychedelic drugs have been the object of extensive attention in the Western world.[citation needed] They have been and are being explored as potential therapeutic agents in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism and opioid addiction. Yet the most popular, and at the same time most stigmatized, use of psychedelics in Western culture has been associated with the search for direct religious experience, enhanced creativity, personal development, and "mind expansion". The use of psychedelic drugs was a major element of the 1960s counterculture, where it became associated with various social movements and a general atmosphere of rebellion and strife between generations.


Stimulants, also known as "psychostimulants",[7] induce euphoria with improvements in mental and physical function, such as enhanced alertness, wakefulness, and locomotion. Due to their effects typically having an "up" quality to them, stimulants are also occasionally referred to as "uppers". Depressants or "downers", which decrease mental and/or physical function, are in stark contrast to stimulants and are considered to be their functional opposites. Stimulants are widely used throughout the world as prescription medicines and as illicit substances of recreational use or abuse.[citation needed]

Stimulants enhance the activity of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Common effects may include increased alertness, awareness, wakefulness, endurance, productivity, and motivation, arousal, locomotion, heart rate, and blood pressure, and a diminished desire for food and sleep. Many stimulants are also capable of improving mood and relieving anxiety, and some can induce feelings of euphoria.[citation needed] It should be noted, however, that many of these drugs are also capable of causing anxiety, even the ones that may paradoxically reduce it to a degree at the same time.

Use of stimulants may cause the body to reduce significantly its production of natural body chemicals that fulfill similar functions. Until the body reestablishes its normal state, once the effect of the ingested stimulant has worn off the user may feel depressed, lethargic, confused, and generally miserable. This is referred to as a "crash", and may provoke reuse of the stimulant.

Examples include:


Computer cleaning dusters are dangerous to inhale, because the gases expand and cool rapidly upon being sprayed.

Inhalants are gases, aerosols, or solvents that are breathed in and absorbed through the lungs. While some "inhalant" drugs are used for medical purposes, as in the case of nitrous oxide, a dental anesthetic, inhalants are used as recreational drugs for their intoxicating effect.[citation needed] Most inhalant drugs that are used non-medically are ingredients in household or industrial chemical products that are not intended to be concentrated and inhaled, including organic solvents (found in cleaning products, fast-drying glues, and nail polish removers), fuels (gasoline (petrol) and kerosene) and propellant gases such as freon and compressed hydrofluorocarbons that are used in aerosol cans such as hairspray, whipped cream and non-stick cooking spray. A small number of recreational inhalant drugs are pharmaceutical products that are used illicitly, such as anesthetics (ether and nitrous oxide) and volatile anti-angina drugs (alkyl nitrites).

Inhalant users tend to be people who do not have access to other drugs or alcohol, such as children, teenagers, incarcerated or institutionalized people, and marginalized individuals.[citation needed] The most serious inhalant abuse occurs among children and teens who "[...] live on the streets completely without family ties."[8][verification needed] Inhalant users inhale vapor or aerosol propellant gases using plastic bags held over the mouth or by breathing from a solvent-soaked rag or an open container. The effects of inhalants range from an alcohol-like intoxication and intense euphoria to vivid hallucinations, depending on the substance and the dosage. Some inhalant users are injured due to the harmful effects of the solvents or gases, or due to other chemicals used in the products that they are inhaling. As with any recreational drug, users can be injured due to dangerous behavior while they are intoxicated, such as driving under the influence. In some cases, users have died from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), pneumonia, cardiac failure or arrest[9][broken citation], or aspiration of vomit.

Variety of "popper" brands

Examples include:


Smoking any tobacco product, %, Males[8] (See the same map for female smokers.)
Total recorded alcohol per capita consumption (15+), in liters of pure alcohol[10]


See also: Illicit drug use in Ireland

A study in the Republic of Ireland found that for teenagers aged 15–19:[11]

  • 86% drink alcohol (the legal alcohol purchase age and public drinking age is 18.)
    • 51% binge drink (defined as five drinks or more at occasion) at least once a month.
    • 19% binge drink once a week.
    • On a typical drinking occasion, the average amount of alcoholic beverages consumed is 5.75 pints.
    • The average age for taking a first alcoholic drink is 13½.
  • 50% have used illegal drugs at least once.
    • 41% have used cannabis at least once.
    • The average age of first illegal drug use is 14½.

Northern Ireland has the highest rate of recreational drug use among teenagers in the European Union.[12]

United States

Drug use has increased in all categories since prohibition.[citation needed] Since 1937, 20% to 37% of the youth in the United States have used cannabis. One in four high school seniors has used the drug in the past month; one in ten 8th graders has done so.[13][dated info] In the 1960s, the number of Americans who had tried cannabis at least once increased over twentyfold.[14][verification needed] Between 1972 and 1988, the use of cocaine increased more than fivefold.[15][verification needed] The usage pattern of methamphetamine is significantly dropping in teens[citation needed], and the usage pattern of ecstasy is not currently rising.[citation needed]


There have been many movements calling for the legalization of recreational drugs (most notably cannabis). Examples of such movements are the Worldwide Marijuana March, Hemp Day, and 4/20. Several movements which call for the legalization of drugs, not from an argument of their safety, but rather from an argument that this issue should be considered a medical one and not a criminal one, also exist, primarily in North America. One such organization is the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). The British drug reform group Transform believes that taxation and regulation of drugs by the government would significantly decrease crime while increasing the health of drug users and addicts.[16] Impact varies from country to country, depending on its legality. Also, there are many anti-drug movements, specifically Straight Edge and The Partnership For A Drug Free America, calling for the continuation of its current illegality.

In a blog article titled "Drugs and the meaning of life", author and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues "The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time." He says that he dreads the thought of his daughter ever taking an interest in crack cocaine. On the other hand, he feels she might be missing out if she never tried psychedelics like psilocybin. Harris also laments that a drug's legality, social status, and risks of harm rarely correlate reasonably.[17]

Risks and harm

When overall harm to society and the drug user are considered together, alcohol is by far the most damaging (despite being legal more often than the other drugs)

The amount and type of risks that come with recreational drug use vary widely with the drug. There are many factors in the environment and the user that interact with each drug differently. Overall some studies suggest that alcohol is one of the most dangerous of all recreational drugs; only heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamines are judged to be more harmful. Experts in the UK offer that some drugs that may be causing less harm, to fewer users (although they are also used less frequently in the first place) include psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and ecstasy. These drugs are not without their own particular risks.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Siegel, Ronald K (2005). Intoxication: The universal drive for mind-altering substances. Vermont: Park Street Press. vii. ISBN 1-59477-069-7. 
  2. ^ Charles E. Faupel; Alan M. Horowitz, Greg S. Weaver. The Sociology of American Drug Use. McGraw Hill. pp. 366. 
  3. ^ "Failed states and failed policies, How to stop the drug wars". The Economist. 2009-03-05. Retrieved 2009-03-10. 
  4. ^ Lingeman, Drugs from A-Z A Dictionary, Penguin ISBN 0 7139 0136 5
  5. ^ MAOI action of Beta-Carbolines in Tobacco,
  6. ^ "MSDS Glossary". Retrieved 2009-01-01. 
  7. ^ "Dorlands Medical Dictionary:psychostimulant". 
  8. ^ a b Epidemiology of Inhalant Abuse: An International Perspective, 148
  9. ^
  10. ^ Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004
  11. ^ RTÉ News - Half of young people use drink, drugs
  12. ^ "NI child drug use 'highest in EU'". BBC News. 2009-09-21. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  13. ^ Charles Whitebread: The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States
  14. ^ Inciardi, James A. (1992). The War on Drugs II. Mayfield Publishing Company. p. 42. ISBN 1-55934-016-9. 
  15. ^ Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs
  16. ^
  17. ^, blog, "Drugs and the meaning of life".
  18. ^ "Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis", by David Nutt, Leslie King and Lawrence Phillips, on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The Lancet.

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