Drug, set en setting

Drug, set and setting

The sort of effect that a drug has and the risks involved by using it, depend on a couple of factors. Those factors are described in a theory by Zinberg (1984).

The most important factors, Zinberg argues, are the drug itself (both dosage and route of administration), the set (characteristics or state of mind at the time of the individual taking the drug) and setting (environmental factors, both physical and social). These three factors combined determine the effects that the drug will have on an individual. Adding to that, these three factors influence whether or not drug use will stay controlled or become problematic.


Different substances have different effects. There is a wide range of possible effects, but we can simplify and break them down into three categories: numbing, stimulating and conciousness-altering (psychedelic).

Numbing (downers)

Numbing substances have a relaxing effect. They make you calm, relaxed and less anxious. If you have a lot on your mind, these substances will help you forget about that for a while. Physically, these substances will slow down a lot of your bodily functions. Your heart rate and breathing will slow down,  your blood pressure will lower, your muscles will relax and all of your senses will be numbed. Some examples of numbing substances are alcohol, GHB or sleeping tablets (Xanax, Valium).

Stimulating (uppers)

Stimulating substances have the opposite effect: they raise your energy levels and make you more alert. Users also report a heightened sense of self-confidence. Physically, stimulating substances will increase the tempo of bodily functions such as your heart rate and blood pressure. Your muscles contract and your jaw will have a tendency to clench. The only thing not accelerating, is your digestive system: you won’t be hungry. Some examples of stimulating substances are cocaine, speed (amphetamine) and ecstasy. Tabacco and coffee are also stimulating substances.

Conciousness-altering (trippers / psychedelics)

The main effect of psychedelic subtances is the warped reality that you will find yourself in. The world will, temporarily, look very different to you. The use of these substances will also influence your mood and general perception. You can see yourself or your environment from a new perspective and possibly gain certain insights. This can be experienced as religious or spiritual. Physically, trippers will raise your heart rate and blood pressure a little. Examples of these substances are LSD, mushrooms, ketamine and 2C-B. But also ecstasy and cannabis can be psychedelic.

Of course this categorisation is simplified. Some substances, like ecstasy (MDMA), work both stimulating and psychedelic. Cannabis on the other hand has a numbing (being ‘stoned’) effect, but has a  physical effect in line with a stimulating substance. Adding to that, a very high dosage of cannabis can even also have psychedelic effects. As a last example of the overlapping of categories: alcohol is a numbing substance, but can be stimulating at a low dosage.


So the substances themselves are, for the most part, easy to categorize by their effects. However, the dosage of those substances is also important: 1 glass of alcohol has a very different effect than 10 glasses. To decide on the correct dosage of a pill or powder, you can have your substances tested at a testservice.

Route of administration

There are several ways to administer substances. The route of administration has an effect on how quickly the substance will have an effect, and also what that effect will be. Some routes of administration and the time it takes for them to start working are:

  • Smoking, ‘chasing the dragon’, basing: 7 – 10 seconds;
  • Injection (intravenous): 15 – 30 seconds;
  • Injection (intramuscular): 3 – 5 minutes;
  • Snorting: several minutes;
  • Swallowing (oral / eating): 30 – 90 minutes;
  • Rectal: 15 – 20 minutes;
  • Through skin (transdermal).

So when swallowing drugs, the most common way for example for XTC, it can take quite a while for the effects to take place. A big risk with this, is that people will start taking more of the substance, because they don’t feel anything happening yet.


Some substances are more addictive than others. Factors like habituation or tolerance are of big influence on how addictive a substance can be. This means that you will keep needing more and more of the same substance to feel the same effects. Another big factor is whether or not you wil go through physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop using a substance. This makes it much harder to quit. The route of administration is also found to be of importance. Smoking and injection are more addictive than swallowing / eating. Of course a final factor is the frequency of usage of the substance.


The characteristics of the individual using the substance, or the state of mind he or she is currently in, are called ‘set’ by Zinberg. To illustrate, you could think of things like:

  • Are you comfortable with where you are in life?
  • What are your expectations of the substance?
  • Are you physically and mentally healthy?
  • Do you use pharmaceuticals?
  • Did you eat / drink (not alcohol) enough in the past days?
  • What sort of clothing are you wearing (too hot, too cold, fabric that breathes or latex that does not)?


The environment, both physically and socially, in which you use a substance is called setting. Think of factors like:

  • In what sort of climate are you using (hot / cold / moist);
  • How busy is the location?
  • Is there access to drinking water?
  • Is first aid present on the grounds?
  • Did you use in an environment that feels safe?
  • Did you use by yourself, with friends or with people you hardly know?


Concluding, the effects of a substance are very hard to predict. We can all recognize the situation in which you have had a couple of drinks and everything feels comfortable and fine. But perhaps another time you will have had the same amount of drinks, but not feel so good. This has to do with the three factors we talked about in this article, that all influence each other. Same goes for XTC, when using at an amazing party, the substance might have very different effects than when using at a party that just is not that good. This all has to do with the setting.