There is no doubt about it, drugs do have a long and lasting effect on society, perhaps none more so than those that come under the heading of psychoactive. What is a psychoactive drug though?

The medical definition states that a psychoactive drug is one that has an impact of sorts on the mood, the way of thinking and the behavior of the person taking it.  This is done by way of manipulation of the central nervous system.

Human beings have a long history of using these drugs, going back many millennia.  While it is not possible to list every single instance of a psychoactive drug being used, we can find some of them. The earliest instances of this type of drug come from plants and fruits that have the ability to alter mood.

The Ancient Civilizations

The Egyptian, the Chinese, the Indians, South Americans and Sumerians, to name but a few of the ancient cultures, used alcohol, opium, cannabis, psychedelic (magic) mushrooms, peyote and coca leaves.

The Middle-Ages

This was the year of psychoactive plants and much use was made of belladonna and psilocybin mushrooms, mostly by shamans for the purpose of healing. Also widely used were coffee and distilled alcohol.


The most used psychoactive ingredients in this period we tobacco, coffee, distilled alcohol, opium and tea. The tea would have been made from the leaves of certain plants, not tea as we know it today.

Early Industrial Revolution

This was the era when techniques were developed to refine the drugs.  They made morphine from opiates; they came up with hypodermic needles and rolling machines for tobacco. All of this served to increase the abuse and the chances of addiction to these drugs.

20th Century

The drug scene picked up speed, if you will pardon the pun, in this era.  We got better at distributing the drugs; we made newer drugs from synthetic ingredients and so began the era of drug regulation.  We got prohibition and the exclusion of marijuana and all this served to do increase the use.


The drug business is huge these days, with vast amounts of cash. Believe it or not, terrorism has played its part in exacerbating the situation, opening up new markets and new channels for distribution.  Certain countries thrive on the growth of cocaine, cannabis and other such drugs.

When the 21st Centruy dawned, we saw a huge increase in so-called club drugs, such as Ecstasy and GHB although this increase was only for a short time. Instead, alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamines increase in use.

Prescription drugs became the drug of choice, mainly because they were so easy to get hold off.  Psychoactive drugs had found their home and they were to stay.  Despite early regulations that ruled marijuana illegal, many US states have now declared it a legal substance for medical purposes only.

Psychoactive Classification

Psychoactive drugs are generally known either by their trade or street name:

  • Uppers – Cocaine, Methamphetamine, caffeine, nicotine
  • Downers – Opioids, heroin, alcohol, sedative hypnotics
  • Psychedelics –  LSD, MDMA
  • Psychiatric medications – anti-biotic, mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety drugs


The history of hallucinogenic drugs goes back around 2000 years. The Native Indian used the Peyote cactus, psilocybin mushrooms were used by the Mayans while the use of Cannabis began in 3000BC in China.

It is widely believed that psychoactive and hallucinogenic drugs were largely responsible for the creation of some cultures.  They were a major influence of art and religion for the Mayans. Peyote is thought to have been the influence of religion of the Huichol Indians in Mexico.  The list could go on because, somewhere though history, psychoactive drugs have had a major influence on society in one way or another.

The foods you eat

What may be worrying is that many of the common psychoactive ingredients can be found in the food you consume on a daily basis. Coffee, tea and chocolate, not to mention anything with alcohol or tobacco in it. Many prescription drugs, though they may seem to be relatively harmless, also contain psychoactive ingredients.  So, the next time you feel higher than normal or inexplicably down, take a look at what you are consuming for the answer first.

Written by History Cooperative