Skip Navigation Bar

Education: Higher Education

America’s Mind-Altering History

Class 1. Psychoactive Substances, their Use and their History


The first class has three goals. First, it explores the reasons people employ psychoactive substances, e.g. recreational, medicinal, religious, and performance-enhancing purposes. Second, it introduces some of the important factors that influence the experience of using mind-altering drugs, e.g. pharmacology, physiology, user mindset, context of use. Third, it briefly examines why some historians and neuroscientists have argued that it is profitable to consider illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, and so-called “hard” and “soft” drugs together, rather than seeing these substances as inherently belonging to one category or another. The selected primary-source readings provide a sense of the longevity of psychoactive drug use and its multiple forms, purposes, and effects over time.

Class Resources
  • Beard, George M. “The Definition, Description, and History of Stimulants and Narcotics.” In Stimulants and Narcotics – Medically, Philosophically, and Morally Considered. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1871, pp. 5-25.
  • Billings, John S. “A Summary of Investigations Concerning the Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem.” In The Liquor Problem – A Summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, edited by the Committee of Fifty. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1905, pp. 17-42.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “The Cocaine Papers (1884).” In Under the Influence – The Literature of Addiction, edited by Rebecca Shannonhouse. New York: Random House, 2003, pp. 25-34.
  • Courtwright, David. “Mr. ATOD’s Wild Ride: What do Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs have in Common?” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 20 (Fall 2005): 105-40.
  • Kleiman, Mark, Jonathan P. Caulkins, and Angela Hawken. “What are the Benefits of Drug Use?” In Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 134-59.
  • Weil, Andrew and Winifred Rosen. “Relationships with Drugs.” In From Chocolate to Morphine: Everything You Need to Know about Mind-Altering Drugs. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004, pp. 24-29.

Discussion Questions
  1. Think about the diversity of psychoactive substances in your and your friends’ and family’s lives. What purposes do they serve? How are they controlled through the law, religious or medical institutions, or informal means? Are the substances that you and yours use on a regular basis part of the larger national discussions about “drugs in America”? Why or why not?
  2. What are the consequences of considering drugs such as caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana together as psychoactive substances? As you answer this question, consider the significance of how we regard psychoactive drugs in general. Think about the consequences for how our society thinks about drug users. And think about the political terrain of drug use and drug control in the United States.
  3. A common experience shared by many college students is a secondary-school drug “education” class. Why are there quotation marks around the word “education”? Are the perceived benefits of taking drugs and the motivations of drug users usually discussed in these classes? If not, why not? If so, under what circumstances? How might including a unit on the history of psychoactive drug use in America affect such courses?
  4. Andrew Weil does not regard any psychoactive drug as inherently bad or good. Instead, he spends a great deal of time discussing the concept of users’ “relationships”—good and bad—with drugs. What do you think each of the historical authors—Freud, Beard, and Billings—would say about Weil’s perspective on psychoactive substances and people’s relationships to them? Would these physicians of the late 19th century approve or disapprove of Weil’s view? Please explain.
Back to top
Join Our Mailing list

Stay up-to-date with the latest at the National Library of Medicine.