Drug is a somewhat nebulous concept in that its basic definition—a chemical agent that in small amounts can significantly modify the way a body/brain functions—could include food, seasonings, and poison as well as heroin, prescription drugs, alcohol, and aspirin.

Sticks were probably among the first tools that we humans used in our long ascent to the complex technologies that have greatly extended our body/brain capabilities. The leaves or fruit of the bush that supplied the stick may also have provided the first drugs. Then as now, humans used drugs because they allow us to do things we otherwise couldn’t do as easily, if at all.

Drugs have been an important part of human life for millennia, but until relatively recently, we didn’t know much about what they were or how they created their effects. Consequently drugs took on a mystical character. People spoke of magic mushrooms and reefer madness. Wine was the nectar of the gods. Drugs were incorporated into religious ceremonies and holiday celebrations. Experiences with drugs ranged from exciting to fearful, helpful to destructive.

Drug education programs emerged out of this general lack of understanding of the psychobiology of drugs, and so a strong moral tone dominated: don’t use drugs because they’re harmful. Schools spoke of their Drug and Alcohol Program (as if alcohol was something other than a drug) or of having a drug-free campus (as if the coffee pots and soda machines were completely free of drugs).

Since our knowledge of the biochemistry and effects of drugs has now dramatically increased, school drug education programs should go beyond the moral overtones and end effects of drug use to a stronger focus on clear explanations of what drugs are, how they and their addictive properties work, and how to live intelligently with them. This shift will certainly rekindle the same argument used against sex education programs: if you teach students about sexuality (drugs), they will become sexually active (use drugs). Well, we’ve been teaching algebra to students for centuries and they still don’t rush out and do algebra.

Psychoactive Drugs: A Primer
Neurotransmitter molecules produced within a sending neuron pass information to a receiving neuron at the synapse (the narrow gap between two neurons). The complementary shapes of the neurotransmitter and the receptor on the postsynaptic neuron allow them to bind (somewhat like a key and lock) and then to pass and receive chemical information. The synapse is an area of constant molecular activity that would be chaotic without its simple molecular binding system. Think of a hotel with many people constantly entering, milling about, and leaving. Key codes and shapes ensure the correct match of hotel guests to rooms. The front part of the key contains the room’s address and the back part the information—the patron holding it who can use it to enter the assigned room. Anyone who holds the key or its duplicate has access to the room.

Psychoactive drugs are herbal or synthetic molecules that sufficiently resemble the molecules involved in brain processes to attach to the appropriate receptors. A psychoactive drug molecule enters our body through respiration, digestion, or injection; moves into our brain via the bloodstream; and then enters into a synaptic area. Like a duplicate key, the drug uses its similar shape and chemical properties to attach to a presynaptic or postsynaptic receptor, and to alter one of a variety of chemical actions that can occur in a synapse. For example, it can mimic the actions of a neurotransmitter that is typically released into the synapse; or it can alter the rate and quantity of neurotransmitter release, the shape and number of receptors, the strength of the action, or the ability of the presynaptic neuron to reuse its neurotransmitters.

The actions of psychoactive drugs can thus positively or negatively affect normal brain activity. Because the shape and chemical properties of drugs mimic those of useful brain molecules, drugs can obviously have positive effects, as exemplified by the widespread use of potentially dangerous drugs. Further, drugs can stabilize the imbalances in neurotransmitter distribution experienced by many people (for example, lithium stabilizes norepinephrine distribution patters in people suffering from bipolar affective disorder).

Because drugs flood into the synapses of a brain area via the bloodstream rather than through the carefully regulated axon terminals of interrelated neurons, their heavy concentration and unregulated movements in and out of synapses can also negatively affect us—within the immediate brain region, and in other parts of our body/brain. Thus, the caffeine that keeps us awake (and perhaps alive) during the final segment of a long late drive home will also probably delay our desired sleep because the effects of caffeine persist over three hours. The small amount of alcohol that initially released our inhibitions in a social setting can with increased consumption trigger inappropriate behavior and uncoordinated movements. The morphine that reduces pain and enhances euphoria in addicts also reduces our brain’s production of its own opiates, and so extends the addiction.

So psychoactive drugs are both helpful and harmful, and almost always require a tradeoff between the two. To maintain a qualitative life, our conscious brain must carefully control its drug selection and dosage, just as its unconscious partners in our skull and glands carefully control the production and distribution of neurotransmitters and hormones.

The brain mechanisms that respond to our environment’s challenges mature during childhood and adolescence. Extensive drug use during this period can adversely affect this maturation, because drugs alter our brain’s natural perception of and response to the environment. Thus, one drug may help keep us awake so that we can complete a task by its deadline, but another drug could negatively affect maturing neural networks that are critical to the problem-solving task. Drugs aren’t good or bad per se. They are chemical technologies that positively and negatively affect the processing effectiveness of our biological brain.

An effective drug education program should therefore help students learn how to use their own biological resources to solve a problem, and to use drugs only when that assistance is essential to maintaining an acceptable quality of life—realizing even then that drugs have addictive properties that can reduce our ability to control their use.

Students need this kind of factual non-moralizing information in drug education programs so that they can learn to make informed conscious choices about what they put into their body and brain.