Drug, set and setting


Drug, set and setting

The effect a drug will have on you and how risky it’s consumption is, has to do with several factors. The factors that contribute to the effect that you are experiencing are described in Zinberg’s theory (1984).

This theory describes how the factors of the drug (the substance itself, the dosage and the way of taking it), the set (factors in the person who takes it) and the setting (factors in the physical and social environment) determine the effect of a specific substance. One could say that the drug, set and setting factors also influence whether a person’s substance use remains controlled or becomes problematic.

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Different drugs have different effects. Substances can be distinguished into groups depending on their effect: downers, uppers and mind-altering.

Sedating (downers)

Downers have a calming and relaxing effect. They make you calm, happy and they reduce anxiety. If you have a lot on your mind, they make it all feel less important for a while. Downers slow down many bodily functions; your heart rate slows down, your breathing goes down as does your blood pressure. Your muscles relax and your senses will feel a little numb. Downers include alcohol, GHB, and sleeping aids like benzodiazepines.

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Stimulating (stimulants/uppers)§

Stimulants will make you feel energetic and alert. Often, users also gain a sense of increased self-confidence. With stimulants, body functions actually accelerate: your heart rate and breathing speed up as does your blood pressure. Your muscles tighten which might cause a jaw clamp. The only thing that does not accelerate is your digestion; you are less hungry or not hungry at all. Cocaine, speed (amphetamine), XTC (MDMA), but also tobacco and coffee are examples of stimulants.

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Mind-altering (psychedelics, hallucinogens)§

When consuming mind-altering substances, the world will look very different for a while. Using psychedelic drugs affects your mood and perception. You might get some insight into yourself or your environment. In some cases, this is even experienced as religious or spiritual. Physical effects include a slightly accelerated heart rate and higher blood pressure. The mind-altering drugs include XTC (MDMA) and cannabis. Hallucinogenic drugs include: LSD, magic mushrooms, ketamine, 2C-B and other psychedelics.

This classification by effect is not a very strict division. Some drugs have several effects at the same time. MDMA, for example, has stimulating as well as a mind-altering effects. Cannabis has an sedating effect (feeling “stoned”), but provides light physical stimulation and can alter your consciousness when consumed in high doses. Alcohol is a downer, but at a low dose can make you feel more active.

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So drugs can be catagorised by their effects. Another factor, which influences what kind of effect a drug will have, is the dosage. Consuming 1 glass of alcohol will give you with a very different effect than drinking 10 glasses. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to determine how strong your pill or powder is. To determine the dosage of a pill, powder or liquid, you can test your drug at a testing service.

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Route of administration§

There are several ways in which a drug can be taken. This route of administration determines how quickly a drug acts and will therefore change the effect.

  • smoking, “chasing the dragon”, basing: 7-10 seconds
  • injecting intravenously (into a vein): 15-30 seconds
  • injecting intramuscularly (into a muscle): 3-5 minutes
  • snorting: a few minutes
  • rectal, “plugging”: 15-20 minutes
  • swallowing (oral, food): 30-90 minutes
  • through the skin (transdermal)

When a drug is swallowed or eaten, it can take a while before you’ll notice the first effects. Be careful not to increase your ingestion right away – you might end up taking too much!

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Some drugs are more or more addictive than others. Whether you are prone to become addicted to a drug is also determined by several factors. The first one is how quicky habituation or tolerance occurs. Tollerance means you need more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. And whether physical withdrawal symptoms occur when you reduce or stop using the drug. This happens faster with some drugs than with others. Another factor in the risk of addiction is the way of intake. Smoking and injecting (slamming) can lead to addiction quicker. Whereas eating or swallowing a drug is a method that does not lead to addiction quite as fast. Also, the frequency of use determines the chance of getting addicted. If you’re able to stay sober for prolonged periods of time and don’t create a habit out of your drug consumption, you’re a lot less likely to get addicted.

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The factor set looks at the user’s characteristics. You can think of the following things:

  • How do you feel? Are you feeling comfortable?
  • What expectation do you have of the drug?
  • Are you physically and psychologically healthy?
  • Do you use any kind of medicine?
  • Have you eaten and drunk enough in the past few days (no alcohol)?
  • What kind of clothing are you wearing (too warm, too cold, breathable fabric or closing latex)?
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The factor setting refers to the environment. You can think of factors such as:

  • What is the climate like where you are planning to use the drug (cold or warm, humid or dry)?
  • Is it busy? Are you surrounded by a lot of people or are you by yourself?
  • Is there free water available?
  • Is there adequate help available?
  • Are you using the drug in an environment that is familiar to you?
  • Are you using the drug by yourself, with friends or with people you hardly know?

Because of all these different factors, the actual effect of a drug is sometimes difficult to predict. Nearly everybody will remember a situation where they consumed a glass, or a couple of glasses of alcohol and felt totally at ease. However, on another occasion, you might have consumed the same amount of alcohol, but you felt ill. You may not understand why this happens, you didn’t drink anything different than last time? This has to do with the personal or environmental factors that all have a certain influence on each other. This makes it sometimes difficult to predict the effects of a certain drug. The same goes for MDMA. Do you take a pill at a lousy party or at the most amazing party of the year? The effect will be different. That has to do with the setting.

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