In terms of its impact on the workings of the human mind, alcohol is a drug in precisely the same sense that LSD, heroin, and cocaine are: They are all psychoactive. Likewise, in the sense that alcohol is used in large part, although not entirely, for its effects on the drinker (the user takes it to get high)вЂ” alcohol is a drug not essentially different from marijuana and cocaine: It is a recreational drug.
With respect to its capacity to induce a physical dependence in the drinker, alcohol is a drug in the same way that heroin and the barbiturates are:.
Alcohol is "addicting," that is, it generates severe withdrawal symptoms when the heavy, long-term drinker discontinues its use. In fact, alcoholism is by far our most common form of drug addiction. Estimates hold that there are roughly 10 million alcoholics and only half a million heroin addicts in the United States.
The typical drug addict, then, is an alcoholic, not a street junkie. In that a sizable minority of drinkers displays a pattern oi behavioral dependenceвЂ”they continue to drink heavily in spite of the social cost to themselves and to others that they care forвЂ”alcohol is a drug no different from cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin..
In the bodily sense, then, all drinkers are drug users. There is no internal, chemical feature of alcohol that sets it off from the substances people think of as drugs. There is no biochemical aspect of drinking that is qualitatively different from what most of us regard as "drug use."
There are two ways in which alcohol cannot be regarded as a drug, however: first, most of the public does not consider alcohol a drug , and second, legal controls on the purchase of alcohol are minimal, which is not true for most drugs. Almost any adult may buy it almost anywhere in the country. This chapter will consider some of the similarities and differences between alcohol and the substances that are universally regarded as drugs and what relevance these similarities and differences have to human behavior.
To us, how a drug is regarded and what it does to us physically are equally important; moreover, the two mutually influence one another. Still, in many respects, there is a yawning chasm between the "objective" properties of some drugs and their image in the public mind. Alcohol is one of these drugs..
Alcohol has an ancient and checkered history. Fermentation was one of the earliest of human discoveries, dating back to the Stone Age. Alcohol emerges spontaneously from fermented sugar in overripe fruit; the starch in grains and other food substances also readily converts to sugar and then to alcohol..
Because this process is simple and basic, the discovery of alcohol by humans was bound to be early and widespread. It is also no accident that alcohol's "remarkable and seemingly magical properties as the ability to induce euphoria, sedation, intoxication and narcosis" and its "great capacity for alleviating pain, relieving tension and worry, and producing a pleasurable sense of well-being, relaxation, conviviality, and good will toward others" have made it an almost universally acceptable and agreeable beverage.
Consequently, we have been ingesting beverages containing alcohol for something like 10,000 years. It is also the most widely used drug in existence; alcohol is ubiquitous, almost omnipresent the world over..
Actually, what is generally referred to as "alcohol" is one of a whole family of alcohols. Pharmacologists call it ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Other representatives of this family include wood alcohol (methyl alcohol) and rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol), which are outright poisons, even in small quantities.
It is therefore no accident that ethyl alcohol, the most pleasant and one of the least toxic of all the alcohols, has come to be identified with the general term. I will refer to ethyl alcohol simply as "alcohol.".
Societies differ vastly in their average level of alcohol consumption. What proportion of their members drink at all, and how much, each drinker consumes on the average varies enormously from one nation to another, and even from one group to another within a country. In addition, every society that has some acquaintance with alcohol has devised and institutionalized rules for the proper and improper consumption of alcohol.
There is, then, intersocietal variation on the behavioral and the normative levels..
Although there are indeed biochemical "effects" of alcohol, both short-term and over the long run, most of them can be mitigated or drastically altered by the belief in and the observance of these cultural rules. Heavy, long-term alcohol use is associated with certain medical maladies, but the extent to which intoxication leads to troublesome, harmful, or deviant behavior varies considerably from society to society.
In many places, alcohol use poses no social problem according to almost anyone's definition..
The drug is consumed in moderation and is associated with no untoward behavior. In other places, alcohol use has been catastrophic by any conceivable standard. The overall impact of alcohol, then, is not determined by the biochemical features of the drug itself, but by their relationship to the characteristics of the people drinking it.
This is not to say that alcohol can have any effect that the members of a society expect it to have. There is a great deal of latitude in alcohol's effects, but it is a latitude within certain boundaries..
As with illegal drugs, the effects of alcohol can be divided into short-term or acute effects while under the influence, and long-range, or chronic effects. Even this breakdown is crude. The acute effects can be further subdivided into those that rest within the "objective" or strictly physiological and sensorimotor realms; the realm of behavior under the influence, called drunken comportment; and the "subjective" realm, or what it feels like to be drunk, how the intoxication is experienced..
The sensorimotor effects are fairly specific and easily measured in mechanical and mental performance, such as motor coordination, memory, and the ability to achieve a given score on certain psychological tests. Drunken comportment, in contrast, refers to the vast spectrum of free-ranging, real-life behavior: what people do with and to one another while under the influence.
A sensorimotor effect would be driving more poorly under the influence; drunken comportment might refer to whether or not one even gets into a car while drunk in the first place. The long-range effects can be divided, at the very least, into medical effects and behavioral effectsвЂ”what happens to one's daily life after ingesting certain quantities of alcohol over a lengthy period..
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