The Greek word,
pharmakeia (Gal. 5:20) derives from the term
pharmakon. The original term had to do with medicine (like an ointment) or a potion, whether for good (as used by a physician) or for evil (as in the administration of poison).
The term could signify a drug. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, tells of a man named Arcesilaus, who fell sick and while “under the influence of a drug
pharmakon which he had taken, was strangled” by one of his own brothers (IV.160).
With the passing of time, the term came to be associated with pagan ceremonies, sometimes in connection with the use of drugs. The term could simply take on the sense of charm, spell, incantation or enchantment (Liddell 1883, 1741).
Some scholars think that Ezekiel may have referred to such practices when he condemned those who “put the branch to their nose” (Ezek. 8:17), though the phrase is very ambiguous (cf. Wright 1976, 558).
What Paul condemns in the Galatian letter is not the legitimate use of drugs for medicinal purposes (see 1 Tim. 5:23). Rather, it was the “magical,” drug-induced spells interwoven with paganism.
In principle, the term might well apply today to those who use drugs as mind-altering substances for recreational (or even religious) purposes.