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A drug is any substance that can be used to treat an illness, to relieve a symptom, to enhance performance or ability, to alter states of mind or to modify a chemical process or processes in the body. The word "drug" is etymologically derived from the Dutch/Low German word "droog", which means "dry", since in the past, most drugs were dried plant parts.



The term "drug" is necessarily a vague one, being defined by intent: for example, foods consumed for normal metabolism are not generally considered "drugs", but the same foods consumed for a more specific purpose (such as the use of alcohol as a depressant or caffeine as a stimulant) may be. Depending on the definition used, the same substance may even be considered both a food and a drug at the same time. The term "medication" is frequently applied to drugs used for medical treatment, presumably to avoid confusion with recreational drugs.


The effects of a particular drug can vary greatly depending on a number of factors:

  • dosage
  • the personal condition and circumstances of the subject (user or patient)
  • the user's expectations or beliefs about the drug (placebo effect)


Two patterns of distribution, licensed and illegal, are created by laws designed to prevent or punish perceived abuse or to protect the interests of licensed producers, suppliers and users. Laws may be designed also (not least with respect to alcohol and tobacco) to generate government tax revenue.

Licensed distribution

In the United States, medical professionals may obtain drugs from drug companies or pharmacies (which in turn purchase drugs from the drug companies). Pharmacies may also supply a drug directly to patients, authorized by a prescription from a medical professional, if the drug can be safely self-administered. Most drugs are relatively high-cost for patients to purchase directly when first distributed, although health insurance may mitigate some of the cost. When the patent for a drug runs out, a generic drug (some known as simply a "generic") is usually synthesized and released by competing companies, causing the price to drop markedly. Drugs which don't require prescription by a medical professional are known as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and can be sold in stores without pharmacy association.

Illegal distribution

Many self-recreational drugs are illegal almost everywhere, meaning that their distribution is a criminal industry. This results in adulterated products such as soap bar. See Drug policy of the Netherlands.


Drugs may be classified in many different ways, according to mechanism of action, effects, or even legal status.


Usage of most of drugs is regulated to some extent. While details vary with location, these are somewhat usual regulations in the Western world:

Not regulated:

Regulated to some extent (age or labeling requirements, for example) but available over the counter:

Prescription drugs, prohibited for non-medical use:

Varies from tolerated to prohibited for medical use:

Varies from prohibited for non-medical use to prohibited for any use

Prohibited for any use, no medical uses currently allowed

UN documents

Three international UN treaties regulate drugs laws:

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime ( is charged with overseeing these treaties and maintains a list of signatory nations at

See also

External links

  • United Nations Drug Control A critical review of the United Nations drug control system (Transnational Institute)
  • Dutch Jellinek clinic Shows the micro biological effect of several kinds of drugs on brain cells, using flash animations.
  • The Vaults of Erowid Reliable, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants and chemicals and related issues. Working with academic, medical, and experiential experts to develop and publish new resources.
  • The Lycaeum An extensive resource for information on psychoactive plants and chemicals including first-person reports of experiences as well as a discussion forum.

Books about Illicit and Popular Drugs

  • PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1988) ISBN 0963009605
  • TiHKAL: The Continuation (1991) ISBN 0963009699
  • The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics (2002) ISBN 0393051897
  • Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (2002) ISBN 0674010035
  • Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft (2002) ISBN 1562791257
  • Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse (2001) ISBN 0970313012
  • The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances (2000) ISBN 0312263171
  • A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age (1999) ISBN 0892818263
  • Phantastica: A Classic Survey on the Use and Abuse of Mind-Altering Plants (1998) ISBN 0892817836
  • Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants in Society (1995) ISBN 1568360754
  • Pharmako/Poeia: Plants Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft (1995) ISBN 1562790692
  • Plant Intoxicants: A Classic Text on the Use of Mind-Altering Plants (1994) ISBN 0892814985
  • The alchemy of culture: Intoxicants in society (1993) ISBN 0714117366


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