I've seen humans described as "The Drug Using Ape". There isn't a single human society that does not use one kind of drug or another, unless their behaviour has been distorted by the infection of one of the religion memes. And even then, drug free religions are a small and vociferous subset religions as a whole. Peyote munching native Americans, cannabis smoking
rastafarians, wine guzzling christians, psychedelic snuffing Amazonian Indians to name just a few of the drug using religions.
Then we get to the social drug users. Coffee, tea, qat, cannabis, opium, alcohol, tobacco, ephedra & coca are just a few of the naturally occurring drugs. The drugs synthesised by man, often from a natural starting point, are many and varied and growing all the time. Cocaine, heroin, the amines (MDMA, Amphetamine etc.) & LSD spring to mind.
So, it seems that most of us, at one time or another, use psychoactive substances. It seems to be a mere accident of birthplace or time that defines which set of substances are socially acceptable in your peer group. On a World War II bombing mission amphetamines would be considered normal, where a decent bottle of Claret would not. The tipple of choice at a Buckingham Palace garden party is tea or a glass of champagne, but pop a few drops of LSD on the fairy cakes and you'd get a few raised eyebrows. Do the same at a Californian beach party and you'd have to ask people to form an orderly queue! (Five bucks a fairy cake and the laser show starts just after
So, it seems many societies, many cultures choose to alter the way their central nervous system (CNS) handles the inputs from their senses and the way their brain uses various neurotransmitters to change their perception of the world and the way they interact with others. In a few words "how they feel". Why would we want to do this?
There are many reasons people take drugs, and many reasons for each individual substance. But i conjecture it's down to a single, inbuilt human trait. The one that led us to the technologically advanced, socially complicated society we have now. That of curiosity and our playfulness.
Play, along with it's partner curiosity lead us up many winding paths just to see what's there. And once we find something novel play takes over with the thought, "What the hell can we do with this!" This process can be seen expressed full blown in children but we never seem to grow out of it. I believe this is another blessing from human neotony. That is, our seeming to retain all the attributes of a juvenile into and beyond sexual maturation. Watch a gaggle of baby chimps at play, then take a look at their grandparents. See how different their behaviour is. Humans retain that playfulness throughout life, along with a large skull in relation to body size (to contain our massively overdeveloped cerebral cortex) and flat face. In fact most mammals go through this maturation process. We did away with it and it has given us a huge leap ahead of our closest relatives.
So where am i going with this? OK, Here's one of the first modern humans walking up that winding path, hungry. Seeds form a major part of his diet and that Morning Glory vine is loaded with the things. This is a new part of the forest for him so he takes a chance. After eating a handful he starts to feel pretty damn strange, sees the world around him change in beautiful or even scary ways. After a while things settle down and he's off to show the others. Curiosity will lead some of the others to try these this new "magical" food and around the camp fire that night our shiny new monstrous (compared with the other primates in the forest) cerebral cortex gets to work explaining what just happened to them. Doorways to another place? Visitation from their gods? Turning man into godlike beings? They will have to wait a while for the neurotransmitter theory. But in the meantime they will speculate away until the cows come home as humans do. Linking this new, magical thing into their everyday experience with stories and tradition.
There, right in front of you, is the birth of one of the longest lived cults in human history, still going on around the globe with a myriad of different substances and cultures. Shamanism.
Right... Moving on. We discover the tools to play with something, along with the curiosity to push the boundaries a little, and we just can't resist it. At first it was naturally occurring chemicals in plants (and some animals, poison frogs have been used too) that gave us the tools to play with our brain. Explore different ways of seeing the world around us. In fact, i hold that drugs are like the ships of the early explorers, carrying us to new and uncharted worlds. But these are worlds within. As in all great journeys of exploration there are dangers, hardship and even death. But the rewards of a new beauty, a new continent even outweigh the dangers.
Our "What the hell can we do with this?" leads us on to the synthesised psychoactives from our organic chemists "playing" with chemicals driven by our innate curiosity. Giving us explorers of the internal universe newer and faster "ships" & "aircraft" with the discovery, refining and outright invention on new substances. Allowing some to dip their toe in at the edge of this ocean of the mind and others to take a brave and joyous leap into the deeper waters to return with tales of wonder and beauty.
So, if your a paddler on the edge or a full blown explorer of the uncharted regions of our inner space, be careful, research. Learn from others who may have gone before you. And remember... life itself is a chemical experience transmitted between neurons in our brains. How sad and tawdry would it be to view this wonderful universe, to feel the love of another, just one way.