Alcohol is the oldest known and most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It has presumably been present since airborne yeast spores started fermenting plant sugars into alcohol about 11/2 billion years ago.
The mists of prehistory cloak our ancient ancestors' discovery of alcohol. Perhaps it was first found by accident when a bunch of grapes or a basket of plums was left standing in a warm place, allowing the fruit sugar to ferment into alcohol (O'Brien & Chafetz, 1991). Perhaps some wild fermented honey was found, diluted with water, and sampled. The drink would later be called "mead" (Waugh, 1968). Early people enjoyed the taste, the mood-altering effects, or both.
Curiosity was followed by experimentation and it was discovered that the starch in potatoes, rice, corn, fruit, and grains could also be fermented into alcohol. Further experimentation found the value of alcohol as a solvent for medicines and as a medicine or tonic in and of itself.
Eventually the desire to have ready access to the pleasurable effects as well as the health benefits of beer and wine led humans to search out the raw ingredients with which to manufacture alcoholic beverages and produce them systematically. In fact some historians believe that the first civilized settlements were created to ensure a regular supply of grapes for wine, grain and hops for beer, and poppies for opium-based narcotic drugs (Keller, 1984.
We know that ancient societies were using alcohol around 8000 B.C., about the same time that agriculture developed. Archeologists have found a recipe for beer, along with alcohol residues in clay pots, in Mesopotamia and Iran dating from 5400-3500 B.C. (Goodwin & Gabrielli, 1997).
Except for some Moslem countries, the use of alcohol is documented in all civilized societies throughout history, in myths, religions, rituals, stories, hieroglyphs, sacred writings, songs, or in commercial records written on papyrus scrolls or clay tablets. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh says wine grapes were given to the earth as a memorial to fallen gods. The Bible contains more than 150 references to wine (O'Brien, 1991).
The Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas, 1876. Absinthe, a distilled liquor that is 68% alcohol, was first produced commercially in 1797. It proved so powerful and dangerous due to a toxin in the wormwood that could cause delerium and death that it was banned in France in 1915 and subsequently by many other countries. Many dissolute artists overindulged in absinthe during the nineteenth century. currently it is aking somewhat of a comeback in the United States and some European countries. Musee D'Orsay. Courtesy of Simone Garlnad.
THE LEGAL DRUG
"laudanum," as a sacrament for Jewish or Christian religious ceremonies, as a substitute for contaminated water supplies, or as the focus of the Anti-Saloon League, alcohol has been the object of desire or of vilification depending on moral attitude, availability, social acceptability, and the politics of the prevailing government.
Because beer, wine, and liquor are so widely available and legal in most societies (except Muslim countries) and because they are promoted by custom and advertising, many people do not think of alcohol as a drug.
Although it is legal and widely available, alcohol is nonetheless a powerful psychoactive drug and is classified as a central nervous system depressant. In small doses it relaxes, sedates, and reduces inhibitions. In moderate doses, even over long periods of time, it continues to relax, sedate, and lower inhibitions in nonsusceptible people. It is however a toxin and in large enough doses can kill a drinker through acute alcohol poisoning-a person often passes out before drinking enough to die.
"I took my 16-year-old brother to a college victory party with my teammates. Three hours later my friend told me my brother had passed out. We called 911 and they told me at the emergency room they hadnever seen someone with that high a blood alcohol concentration who had still lived. He had been drinking straight vodka from a paper cup."
22-year-old college senior.