Recreational drug use

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Recreational drug use is the use of psychoactive drugs for recreational rather than medical or spiritual purposes, although the distinction is not always clear. Regardless of medical supervision, this label does not apply to the use of drugs for utilitarian purposes, such as the relief of fatigue or insomnia, or the control of appetite.

A distinction must be made from (recreational) drug use and drug abuse, although there is much controversy on where the dividing line lies on the spectrum from a drug user to a drug abuser. Some say that abuse begins when the user begins shirking responsibility in order to afford drugs, or have enough time to use them. Some say it begins when excessive amounts are used, while others draw the line at the point of legality. Some think that any intoxicant consumption is an inappropriate activity.



The recreational use of drugs has been popular throughout human history.

The most widespread recreationally used drug is alcohol. Beer and wine were produced in Persia and in the Mediterranean before recorded history. Popular theory seems to agree that people first consumed and enjoyed the effect of rotten fruit, which would contain some alcohol. Modern research in the jungle has shown this to be the case with animals. Nicotine, the psychoactive constituent of tobacco, was first used by Europeans in the sixteenth century, but was used ritually in the Americas centuries prior. Despite relatively recent proscription as an illegal drug in much of the world, cannabis retains its historical popularity. Cannabis, like alcohol, has been used by virtually every culture in recorded history.

Recreational use of opium (extracted from the immature seed pods of a species of poppy) was once common in Asia, and from there spread to the West. Its use peaked in the nineteenth century, when the British Empire and other Western powers used military power to force China to legalize its import from India and other British colonies (see Opium Wars). Cocaine and heroin were sold as patent medicines in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and marketed as treatments for a wide variety of ailments.

Many other substances were once commonly used as recreational drugs, but fell from favor for various reasons. Islam forbids the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and many religions discourage the recreational use of drugs. In the 20th century some Western countries, notably the United States, have criminalized the use of many recreational drugs, and used diplomatic, economic and military pressure on other countries to do the same. Thus, for example, the Japanese hemp plant — once widely grown as a source of textile fiber — was wiped out during the American occupation after World War II, and today only survives in a handful of strictly controlled bio-conservation plots.

Legal aspects

In many cases, the possession and use of common recreational drugs violates the law. This attitude is less prevalent in western Europe—see Drug policy of the Netherlands—and more recently in Canada, where enforcement of extant legal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and other so-called "soft drugs" such as hallucinogenic mushrooms is increasingly ignored or given a low priority by law enforcement officials.

This attitude stands in marked contrast to the official policy of the United States government, which declared a "War on Drugs" under President Richard Nixon in 1972 which later intensified under Ronald Reagan, but saw its greatest increases (in budget, and in the number of arrests and prosecutions) under president Bill Clinton. The United States is far more stringent about enforcing penalties for soft drug use. The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, is primarily responsible for illegal drug interdiction at the federal level. Despite the application of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to this perceived problem, recreational drug use remains common in the United States, and according to some studies is actually more common than in Europe where the laws are more relaxed. Millions of illicit drug users exist in the United States who have never faced prosecution. Many American police officers don't bother enforcing possession laws on those holding small quanities of soft drugs.

Some theorize that the taboos on recreational drugs adds an aura of mystique to their use, and encourages experimentation (i.e., the "forbidden fruit" phenomenon). This phenomenon was prevalent during the American alcohol prohibition.

Many societies have abandoned what they feel are unsuccessful attempts to prohibit recreational drugs, and instead turned to a policy of harm reduction by informing users of ways to reduce common risks associated with popular drugs, and providing medical assistance for drug users who wish to stop using drugs. Harm reduction is the official policy of the Netherlands, Brazil, and some areas of Canada such as Vancouver, which have stopped actively prosecuting end users of recreational drugs. Instead, law enforcement efforts focus on capturing illegal dealers of "hard drugs" such as heroin and cocaine, passing out clean needles to intravenous (IV) drug users, and providing medical assistance for addicted users who wish to stop taking drugs.

Many currently legal recreational drugs (examples: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, tea, coffee and even chocolate) have been subject to prohibition throughout history, and likewise most of the currently illegal recreational drugs have been legal as recently as the early twentieth century.

Drugs popularly used for recreation

The drugs most popular for recreational use worldwide are alcohol, cannabis, caffeine and nicotine.

Other substances often used for recreational purposes follow:

See also


  • Dale Pendell, PharmakoDynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft: Excitantia and Empathogenica, San Francisco: Mercury House, 2002.
  • Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft, San Francisco: Mercury House, 1995.

External Links

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