The Inadequacy of the Word ‘Drug’ in the English Language (And Why It Matters)

Paul Austin

“Kids, Don’t Do Drugs!”

One of the most common phrases uttered by teenage parents, in hopes of helping their young and impressionable children avoid a life of misery and despair.

Usually, such a conversation happens at the dinner or breakfast table (though in our age of ‘busyness,’ family meals happen less often), where people consume the two most conventional ‘drugs’ in Western society:

Caffeine and alcohol.

Oh, the irony.

Because of the inadequacies of the English language, the word ‘drug’ represents an entire spectrum of mind-altering substances; from substances consumed ad libitum, like tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine; to the most heinous of substances, like crystal meth and heroin.

By and large, the word ‘drug’ is poorly perceived by much of society. Reinforced by hyperbolic phrases like the ‘War on Drugs’, and ‘Drug Free World’, such an impression short circuits the general populace’s willingness to approach drug use with a discerning mind.

What, then, is the actual, literal meaning of the word ‘drug’ in the English language?

The word ‘drug’ has an unknown origin – most historians speculate it comes from the word ‘droge,’ meaning ‘supply, stock, or provision’ from 14th century French.

But in today’s world, a drug is defined as, “medicine or another substance that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.”

Notice the vacancy of ‘illegal’ or ‘illicit’ in the definition of ‘drug.’ Nope, a drug is any substance, illegal or not, which has a physiological effect on the human body.

According to this definition, then, the three most commonly consumed drugs are alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine.

All three of these substances are legal and enjoyed in mass quantities by societies across the world.

For this reason, it is hilarious to hear of the “War on Drugs” and about the necessity of a ‘Drug Free World,” because, well, can you imagine our world without bars, Big Tobacco, and a local Starbucks on every other block?

Yeah, me neither.

Humans love drugs. We crave novel experiences, even if the experience is only a hair breadth’s away from the monotonous existence of complete sobriety. The fire of curiosity impels humans to use substances to access other states of mind and physical being.

I’m a standard Image Caption.

Photograph by Lorem Ipsum via Unsplash

What Are These ‘Other’ Drugs?

But the use of drugs extends outside the typical, everyday use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. Hence, the “War on Drugs,” and “Drug-Free World.”

We also use ‘drugs’ for medical purposes, recreational fun, personal exploration, studying, and, in some cases, to commit suicide.

According to official classifications, there are five types of drugs:

  • Stimulants: Cocaine, Crystal Meth, PCP, Adderall, Ritalin, Caffeine, and Tobacco (commonly called “uppers”)
  • Narcotics: Any drug derived from the opium poppy, including heroin, Oxycontin, Vicodin, and morphine.
  • Depressants: Alcohol, barbiturates, and Valium (commonly called “downers”).
  • Steroids: Most often perceived as anabolic steroids, but can also be steroids that help with medical recovery.
  • Psychedelics/Hallucinogens: Psychoactive compounds that cause a marked change in consciousness, typically by inducing sensual distortion. Includes magic mushrooms, LSD, marijuana, and DMT.

Is the inadequacy of the word ‘drug’ clear, yet?

The word ‘drug’ describes five vastly different substances, all of which spark different physiological mechanisms within the human body.

Such an egregious labeling is akin to calling all forms of transportation ‘motorcycles.’

Imagine the following conversation between a mom and her son:

Son: “Hey Mom, I’m going from Los Angeles to New York today by motorcycle. I’ll be flying with United Airlines.”

Mom: “Be careful, honey, I heard motorcycles are extremely dangerous. People have accidents all the time – I heard there are up to 40 motorcycle accidents every day! And people die when they ride motorcycles! All the time!

Son: “Oh yeah, ‘motorcycles,’ like the two-wheel, drive-on-the road, pimp-out-my-Harley are dangerous, but I’m actually taking a plane. Plane accidents are extremely rare. Humans just call it a motorcycle because labeling all forms of transportation as ‘motorcycle’ dissuades people from taking a calculated risk, even if the upside is tremendous and the downside is minimal.


“Microdosing involves taking a small, subperceptual dose of psychedelics.”

Why Are We So Damn Lazy in Describing Drugs?

Why do we use the same word to describe five different substances?

Or, in other words, why don’t we refer to each ‘type’ of drug by an exact name?

For example, when talking about LSD and Magic Mushrooms, why don’t people say “Psychedelics are bad for you,” instead of “Drugs (referring to LSD) are bad for you?”

There are two main reasons why humans refuse to engage in proper ‘name-calling’ when discussing illicit drug use:

  1. Humans have a tendency to generalize because we’re lazy.

It is easier to group all foreign substances together – substances many people are not familiar with – rather than approach each drug with a discerning mind about its potential benefits and harms.

  1. Modern society is not familiar with the majority of substances labeled as ‘drugs.’

Why are drugs like tobacco and alcohol legal, when drugs proven to be less physically harmful and psychologically addictive, like LSD, Marijuana, and Magic Mushrooms, are not legal?

Both ‘types’ of drugs have the potential for good, and both must be used in moderation and with appropriate caution.

To argue that alcohol and tobacco are ‘more safe’ than psychedelics is a pipe-dream, largely because the addictive and destructive nature of both of these substances.

Humans have consumed alcohol for thousands of years. The experience of drinking alcohol is well-integrated into society. It has been ever since humans discovered fermented beverages thousands of years ago.

In today’s world, we love to go to the pub and have a beer with friends or drink a nice rooftop cocktail while watching the sunset.

But the majority of illegal drugs have become familiar to Western, industrial nations only within the last 100 years. Westerners first started to use marijuana on a wide scale in the late 19th and early 20th century. LSD, invented in 1938, was not widely used until the 1950s.

One-hundred years are too short of a time span to integrate such substances into the model of Industrial civilization. Plus, the counterculture of the 60s didn’t help, when thousands of people abused potent hallucinogens, causing a massive backlash by the U.S. Government: Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs.

The War On Drugs

As part of Nixon’s War on Drugs, a term popularized by the media after Nixon used it in 1970, the U.S. passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

Under this Act, all ‘drugs’ available in the U.S. were scheduled into one of five categories.

Schedule I:

– The drug has a high potential for abuse.

– The drug has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.

– There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision.

Examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, GBA, bath salts, quaaludes, marijuana (LOL because 23 states have legalized medical marijuana), and, most notably, psychedelics like LSD and Psilocybin.

Frankly,  labeling psychedelics and

marijuana as ‘Schedule I’ is inaccurate. Neither have a high potential for abuse, and both have currently ‘accepted’ medical uses.

Various studies have proved psychedelics like LSD and Psilocybin to have no physically or psychologically addictive properties. Unlike many narcotics and stimulants – many of which are Schedule II or III – psychedelics do not cause long-term dependency.

Plus, in the 1950s and 60s, the psychiatric community used psychedelics to help treat issues like alcoholism, depression, autism, and various other ailments. Hence, there is an established medical use.

Schedule II:

– The drug has a high potential for abuse.

– The drug has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.

– Abuse of the drug may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Schedule II drugs include Codeine, Cocaine, Morphine, and Ritalin.

Schedule III:

– The drug has a potential for abuse less than the drugs or other substances in schedules I and II.-

– The drug has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

– Abuse of the drug may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.

According to the above definition, psychedelics and cannabis should be categorized in Schedule III.

Their abuse for potential is less than drugs like Cocaine and Morphine, considering psychedelics have no physically addictive properties.

Additionally, psychedelics have an accepted medical treatment.

Examples of Schedule III drugs include Ketamine, Anabolic steroids, and Aspirin with Codeine.

Schedule IV and V:

– The drug has a low potential for abuse relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III.

– The drug has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

– Abuse of the drug may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs or other substances in schedule III.

Examples of schedule IV and V drugs include Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin.

By including ‘drugs’ like LSD and Magic Mushrooms in the same Schedule as Heroin, GBA, and Bath Salts, the Nixon administration set a precedent of understanding for how Western culture views psychedelics:

As evil, dangerous substances, that, when consumed, have no positive potential.

How Should We Label Different ‘Drugs,’ Then?

By ‘labeling’ a drug accurate to its observed effects, instead of as a general substance, we lend greater credibility to the definitions.

We also, by default, create more awareness of the potential benefits and drawbacks of using psychedelics and cannabis compared to drugs like heroin, cocaine, PCP, and Crystal Meth.

In his essay, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life,” Sam Harris makes an excellent point about the importance of a discerning mind when deciding which drugs to consume:

“One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting and for what purpose and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term, drugs, making it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”

The word ‘psychedelic’ is an excellent start. By labeling hallucinogenics as psychedelics, many users differentiate these visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary insights, from narcotics, stimulants, and other synthetic compounds of abuse.

The term “Psychedelic” was coined by Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist, in a letter correspondence with the writer Aldous Huxley in 1956.

Originally Aldous Huxley wrote, “To make this trivial world sublime/Take half a gramme of phanerothyme.”

Osmond responded with: “To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of Psychedelic.”

Osmond coined the term ‘Psychedelic’ from the Greek word for ‘mind’ (“psyche”) and the verb ‘to manifest’ (“delein”). It means “mind-manifesting.”

So what are the next steps to ‘re-label’ all other drugs in a similarly accurate manner?

“Microdosing Is A Process Of Self-evaluation. It Allows You To Notice Yourself In Different States.”

Re-Building ‘Drug’ Awareness

How does a society obsessed with television, celebrities, Snapchat, and detox diets muster up the intellectual wherewithal to discern between the various types of drugs?

It doesn’t, is the short answer.

The best way to bring drug education to the masses – possibly the only way to create widespread understanding about the benefits and drawbacks of different ‘drugs,’ – is to start at the top.

Political leaders like Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, intellectual behemoths like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nassim Tale, and online influencers like Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan.

These are individuals who will take the time to discern between the various, proven methods and outcomes of taking certain drugs; then, most importantly, they will explain the differences to the mass public in simple, ‘explain-like-I’m-five’ language.

To jumpstart the change, those who are already educated on drug use (and I assume YOU are if you made it this far) should begin re-labeling substances when writing and discussing them.

To assist in building awareness of the various benefits and drawbacks associated with each drug (stimulants, narcotics, depressants, steroids, psychedelics), I propose the following:

From herein, the word ‘drug’ is removed from the English language, and is, instead, replaced by several different words to describe the various substances consumed by mankind for medicinal and recreational purposes.

We can keep the term psychedelic as it accurately describes the effects (“mind-manifesting”) of substances like LSD and Psilocybin on the human mind.

Outside of psychedelic, we will introduce and widely use some variation of the following phrases:

– Herbal Remedies:

We could also call it ‘Herbalism.’ Herbal remedies are plants used for medicinal purposes. Herbal remedies are already widely used; HOWEVER, the big distinction is ‘re-categorizing’ medical marijuana use as an herbal remedy, and treating it as such.

By re-labeling medical marijuana use as an ‘herbal remedy,’ we create freedom in our language to label regular marijuana use as ‘recreational.’ Since the stigma around marijuana use is slowly dissipating, ‘recreational’ marijuana use will be similarly perceived as having a beer.

– Recreational Substances

– Productivity Enhancers

– Legal Opiates:

“You want to take a physically addictive drug like Morphine or Vicodin for your pain? Here, have a ‘legal opiate.'”

Herbal remedies often don’t have the same ‘oomph’ as opiate-derived medicines for pain. For that reason, the use of drugs like Morphine and Vicodin is still necessary.

However, when used, there needs to be a clear understanding of the addictive nature of such drugs.

– ‘Potentially Dangerous Drug’

What about the usual ‘party drugs?’ Party drugs include MDMA, MDA, GHB, Ecstasy, and Cocaine.

Keeping the label ‘party drugs’ would only encourage further irresponsible use by teenagers and kids in their late-teens and early 20s. Why not, instead, label any sort of ‘party drug (MDMA, MDA) as “Potentially Dangerous Drug,’ or PDD.

By identifying such drugs as ‘potentially dangerous,’ it encourages further research into WHY such a drug may have a potential for danger.

Don’t forget about the stimulants doctors LOVE to feed to children as young as five years old. For drugs like Adderal and Ritalin, the classically ‘legal’ stimulants, we should eliminate them entirely.

– Doctor-Only Substances

Finally, we have our ‘Doctor-only Substances.’ Such substances would include various anesthesia used in medical surgeries.

– ‘Life-killers’

These would only apply to drugs like heroin, crystal meth, PCP, and other drugs with high potential for physical habituation, possible death by toxic overdose, and, in all actuality, no established medical use.

I admit: such definitions are not perfect.

In an ideal world, everyone who ingested any substance would understand both the positive and negative repercussions of doing so.

However, in re-labeling drugs with more descriptive titles, we meet the ignorance of mainstream society halfway.



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