The history of drug abuse is a long one, fed by the human desire to experience pleasure. Here is a brief history of the use of drugs by humans.
Changing Attitudes toward Drug Use and Abuse from Antiquity to Present
Drug use - or, more specifically, drug abuse - is often spoken of as a problem of modern times. The United States of the late 20th century was consumed by the “War on Drugs," and we are continually bombarded by the latest statistics on drug use and abuse. But drug use is not a recent phenomenon in human society; rather, it has existed for all of recorded history. When you consider that an estimated 4,000 of the earth's plants are sources of psychoactive substances, it is hardly surprising that mood-altering drugs have long been consumed in cultures around the world. And as cultures have changed, so too have the reasons for, consequences of, and response toward the use of these substances. Today's attitudes toward mood-altering drugs have been shaped by their long and often contentious history.
Drug Use In Antiquity (Prehistory to approximately 500 CE)
We know from archaeological evidence that humans have been using psychoactive substances for at least 10,000 years. While many of the same drugs continue to be used in modern times - such as cannabis, tobacco, and opiates — the context has changed dramatically. Archaeological and textual evidence indicates that drug use in antiquity was devoted to ritual and medicinal purposes. As the substances were routinely used in the service of spiritual and physical well-being, drug use in ancient times was socially acceptable and even considered a vital part of society.
Charred cannabis seeds found at an ancient burial site provide evidence that smoke from the cannabis plant was being inhaled by humans as long ago as 3000 BCE, presumably in a ritual or ceremonial context. Cannabis is also known to be referenced in Assyrian texts dating from 600 BCE, and archaeological evidence suggests that the plant was eaten ceremoniously by the Scythians, an ancient Iranian people who prospered during the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE. Shamans of the Scythians and other peoples inhaled cannabis smoke during religious ceremonies in order to achieve a trance-like state. The ancient peoples of India used cannabis medicinally, as a sedative and for the treatment of disorders including dysentery, sexually transmitted diseases, and headaches.
Tobacco was used similarly in the Americas, where it likely began growing around 6000 BCE. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Caribs all smoked tobacco, often as part of religious and healing rituals. Tobacco use became pervasive in the Americas, where complex spiritual and political rituals were developed around its consumption. Tobacco (as well as a variety of hallucinogenic drugs) was smoked to achieve trances during religious rituals, and was also used as currency and smoked as way to seal agreements. Medicinally, it was used as a painkiller and as a cure for colds.
Opium also has a long history of human usage; the opium poppy was one of the plants cultivated by humans during the Neolithic Era, with the first known cultivation occurring in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Opium was widely used by the people of the Middle East, and played a role in the cultures of the ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Persian, and Arab Empires. Like cannabis, ancient opium use was for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. Opium was used as an anesthetic during surgical procedures, and was referenced in numerous medical texts of the time. One of these texts, the Ebers Papyrus, describes how to use the opium poppy plant in order to calm a crying child. Gods and goddesses of the ancient worlds were often depicted with wreaths or bunches of the plant, indicating the opium poppy's ritual importance. In Ancient Egypt, opium use was the province of priests, magicians, and warriors. It was introduced to China by the Arabs, where it was referred to in medical texts.
Consumption of these and other psychoactive drugs derived from plants such as various mushrooms, peyote, Salvia divinorum, alcohol, Soma, and kava, to name only a few, took place throughout the ancient world, primarily for religious and therapeutic purposes. Use of these drugs often conveyed a degree of status, and they were an accepted part of many ancient societies.
The Middle Ages (500 to 1450 CE)
Although use of a variety of psychoactive drugs persisted throughout the Middle Ages, alcohol (which had also been widely used in antiquity) became the drug of choice in Europe. Many hallucinogenic drugs that had been widely used in antiquity became associated with pagan rituals by the early Christian church and demonized as satanic in nature. The Vikings' use of amanita muscaria mushroom led to the wild, frenzied battle behavior that earned them the name “Berserkers.” Cannabis continued to be used socially in the Muslim world and North Africa. Opium, associated with the devil by the Inquisition because of its Eastern origins, largely disappeared from European records during the latter portion of the Middle Ages.
Northern Europeans developed a preference for mead, beer, and wines from wild fruits, while those who resided in the areas that are currently Italy, Spain, and France remained fondest of wine. Brewing and winemaking techniques that had been developed and used widely during the time of the Roman Empire were preserved by the early Catholic Church; brewing and wine-making became the province of monasteries and other religious institutions. Wine held a prominent place in Catholic religious ceremony and the monasteries owned the Middle Ages' best vineyards and produced large amounts of wine. Until around the 12th century, nearly all high-quality beer was supplied by the monks, who maintained a level of secrecy about their brewing techniques. Eventually, artisan brewing industries could be found in many towns, a source of pride for many townspeople. Consumption of beer and wine became an integral part of culture in the Middle Ages.
Around 1250 CE, the technique of distillation was developed. The alcoholic spirits made during the distillation process were known as aqua vitae, “water of life.” For most of the latter part of the Middle Ages, distilled spirits held the most interest for monks and physicians, who considered it as treatment for a variety of illnesses. Distilled spirits were used largely for medical purposes until the end of the Middle Ages, when people began consuming them as a beverage.
Although drunkenness was neither unknown nor condoned during the Middle Ages, the use of alcohol was widely accepted and an important part of the culture of the day. Secular ceremonies and festivals were created around its consumption. As with drug use in antiquity, alcohol had strong religious connections and was considered to be of important medicinal use.
The Age of Discovery & European Imperialism (1450 to 1800 CE)
As might be expected, the period known as The Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration was responsible for the introduction of new psychoactive drugs to many societies around the world. As Europeans ventured to new continents, they were introduced to new substances and, in turn, introduced inhabitants of newly discovered lands to substances used widely on the European continent. Some mood-altering substances and their accompanying rituals became quickly popular in Europe, while others failed to develop the same following.
Tobacco, tea, and coffee were all introduced to Europeans during this time period. Easy to store and prepare, these substances became widely used both publicly and privately. Europeans and Arabs alike considered tea and, particularly, coffee to have health benefits. Some saw it as a substitute for alcohol, and coffee houses became prominent social institutions. In fact, attitudes toward these substances were very similar to those found in the United States today—tea and coffee were widely used, and tobacco found itself a subject of controversy.
Tobacco was used medicinally during the 16th century, and at the beginning of the 17th century English physicians were becoming disapproving of its widespread use without a prescription. King James published an anti-tobacco pamphlet and drastically increased the tax on tobacco, and Sir Francis Bacon made note of the difficulty in breaking what he called the tobacco “custom.” At the same time, England began growing tobacco in Virginia. By 1917, 7,000 of London's shops were selling tobacco.
The extreme popularity of tobacco didn't continue unimpeded. As is happening in the United States today, cities and countries around Europe began to consider banning the smoking of tobacco; by 1648, tobacco smoking was largely prohibited on the European continent. For example, Bavaria required a prescription for tobacco and restricted its use to the upper class. Other countries went to great extremes: China banned the growing and use of tobacco, and 1670s Russia saw several years during which smoking tobacco was an offense punishable by death. Eventually, in the 18th century, snuff became preferred over smoking tobacco. It remained popular, despite being linked to nose cancer as long ago as 1761.
These centuries also saw a resurgence in the use of opium. The people of Persia and India consumed opium recreationally, in foods and beverages, and its medicinal use—often as part of a tonic—became popular in England as treatment for a variety of ailments. Although today widely associated with China, opium smoking was actually introduced to the Chinese by the Portuguese—a habit the Chinese considered barbaric—and the Dutch introduced to China the practice of smoking opium in a pipe. During the 18th century, the opium trade to China grew tremendously, with the drug being imported into the country by England and India (with the majority of the trade eventually going to The British East India Company). While England and other countries were getting rich from the opium trade, China was suffering. The country began enacting laws against opium's smoking and sale, allowing it to be used only medicinally, under license. According to law, Chinese shop owners selling opium were to be strangled. By the end of this period in history—in the year 1799—the emperor of China enacted a complete ban on opium, making growing and trading it a crime.
Cocaine also made an appearance in Europe during these years. Before the influence of European colonizers, the coca plant was prized in South America principally for religious purposes. The Incas considered the plant to be sacred, and the sharing and chewing of coca leaves was a sign of friendship and acceptance, and its use was considered an honor. Leaves of the coca plant had also long been chewed by the indigenous peoples of South America in order to increase stamina, decrease fatigue, and assuage hunger. These effects of the coca plant, which had been beneficial to the people of South America for many years, were taken advantage of by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. The newly arrived Europeans used the native peoples as slave laborers, and they discovered that encouraging addiction to the plant both increased the slaves' productivity (fewer rests and improved stamina) and decreased the costs of upkeep (reduced hunger meant less food was required). While the coca plant was introduced to Europe at this point, the process of chewing coca leaves failed to catch on. It wasn't until the 19th century, when the substance cocaine was isolated from the coca leaf and became available in powder or liquid form, that it became attractive to Europeans.
Scientific Advances of the 19th Century
The 19th century was full of pharmaceutical and medical breakthroughs that significantly impacted both how drugs were used and the attitudes surrounding their use. In 1803, the primary alkaloid of opium was isolated by a German pharmacist. Named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, morphine was a potent opiate painkiller. The invention of the hypodermic needle later in the 19th century allowed for morphine to be injected, and it was used widely in the Civil War as a painkiller. For a number of years in the 20th century, it was believed that this extensive wartime use led to Soldier's Disease, a widespread addiction to opiates seen in former soldiers. Although widely used as an example of drug problems that existed before the narcotics laws of the 20th century, more recent scholarship has shown that Soldiers' Disease is actually a modern creation. Although today's knowledge and attitude toward opiates and their addictive potential support the concept of Soldiers' Disease, in truth widespread addiction to opiates was actually not a large problem among 19th century soldiers. A number of people did develop an addiction to morphine after medical operations, but they did not form society's largest group of opiate addicts.
In fact, the typical addict in the United States of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a rural, upper-middle-class white woman of middle age; in Great Britain, there was a notable addiction among working-class mothers and their children. What did these groups of women have in common? They were the prime users of patent medicines. These elixirs were sold in catalogs, newspapers, and by itinerant salesman, marketed as remedies for all kinds of ailments. Opium, which faced no legal restrictions on its importation or use in the United States, became a staple of the growing patent medicine industry. Although purchasers were not aware of their contents, these patent medicines sometimes contained up to 50% morphine by volume, and often contained substantial amounts of cocaine.
Diacetylmorphine was first synthesized in 1874, and beginning in 1898 was marketed by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer under the trademarked name heroin. Bayer advertised the drug as a cough suppressant and a non-addictive substitute for morphine for over a decade, before it was discovered that heroin metabolizes into morphine and was, in fact, quite addictive.
According to some estimates, 2-5% of the adult population of the United States was addicted to drugs in 1900—with much of the addiction an accidental result of the extensive use of patent medicines for pain relief and treatment of chronic ailments. In the state of Vermont alone, an estimated 3.3 million doses of opium were sold per month. This extreme rate of addiction has not been equaled in any of the years since. Despite its prevalence, addiction in the 19h century was widely viewed as a medical rather than societal or criminal problem, with physicians and pharmacists considered those best suited to treat addiction. However, this attitude toward drug use and addiction began to change as perceptions of the typical addict shifted from respectable white women to immigrants and criminals.
Temperance and Criminalization
The temperance movement, a social movement against the use of alcohol, took place worldwide during the 19th century. People involved in the movement emphasized the evils of alcohol and made its use and abuse into a moral issue. During the latter half of the 19th century, as the temperance movement gained support, steps also began to be taken to control opium use. In 1868 the Pharmacies and Poisons Act granted British physicians control over opium sales, and in 1875 San Francisco outlawed ownership of opium shops. These measures were largely in response to the association of opium smoking with Chinese immigrants, who were widely considered degenerates in Britain and the United States. This anti-Chinese sentiment was driven by a number of factors: American workers felt threatened by the influx of cheap Chinese labor, opium dens were rumored to seduce white women into a life of prostitution, and reports were that upper-class citizens were beginning to take up the “Chinese” habit of opium smoking. These fears led to 1882's Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration to the United States. While all opium was subject to customs duties, the smoking opium which was associated with Chinese immigrants, gamblers, and prostitutes, was subject to the highest duty—a 97% “Sin Tax” during the years 1866 to 1908. In 1909, California prohibited the importation of smoking opium, which many consider to be the beginning of the United States' international War on Drugs.
The U.S. government's first noteworthy attempt to exert control over previously unregulated and widely used mood-altering drugs was 1906's Pure Food and Drug Act. The Pure Food and Drug Act established the Food and Drug Administration, which was charged with approving all foods and drugs meant for human consumption. Testing of the patent medications on the market showed their extremely high levels of addictive substances like morphine and cocaine, and they were not approved by the FDA. The Pure Food and Drug Act also limited certain drugs to prescription use only, and required that potentially habit-forming drugs be labeled as such. This law—which was not a criminal law—largely eliminated the patent drug industry and greatly reduced drug addiction in the United States.
In reality, the widespread use of drugs in the United States was not associated with a great deal of crime. The fear the country felt toward drug use was more the result of rumor and prejudice than fact. One such rumor began with the 1910 report by Dr. Hamilton Wright that cocaine was being given to African-American employees in order to increase their ability to work. Soon, the New York Times was publishing such statements as "most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the 'cocaine-crazed' Negro brain." With stories such as that, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act received the support it needed to be passed in 1914, becoming the first Federal law to criminalize drug use in the United States. The Harrison Act regulated opiates and cocaine by making their possession a crime of tax evasion. A decade later the sale, manufacture, and importation of heroin became illegal even for medical purposes. Prohibition began in the United States around the same time, in an attempt to protect society from the evils of alcohol use. As drug use became considered a criminal matter, the profile of drug users changed. Use of drugs by the middle and upper class declined, and drug use began to be associated more and more with the lower classes, criminals, immigrants, and other social outcasts.
The Psychedelic Revolution
Hallucinogenic drugs have been used since antiquity, often as part of religious or spiritual rituals. Those native to the Americas used hallucinogens including peyote (from which the modern drug mescaline is derived), morning glory seeds, mushrooms, and secretions from the bufo toad; ancient peoples on the other side of the world used the nightshade plant, jimsonweed, mandrake, and harmine. Yet despite their ancient roots, hallucinogens were largely unknown to the modern Western world. Attention was drawn to them by Swiss chemist Albert Hofman's 1938 discovery of a derivative of the fungus ergot, which he named lysergic acid diethylamide—more commonly known as LSD.
In the years after World War II, hallucinogenic drugs like LSD became very interesting to the field of psychiatry, which looked at the drugs both as a possible therapeutic approach for psychological disorders and as a way to induce a psychosis that could then be studied. Governments were also interested in the potential strategic military use of hallucinogenic drugs and conducted their own research and experiments; the mind control experiments of the United States' CIA are a notable example.
Hallucinogens were widely introduced to the general public in the 1950s by Aldous Huxley and R. Gordon Wasson, who provided written descriptions of their hallucinogenic experiences, induced by mescaline and psychedelic mushrooms respectively. Icons of the 1960s, such as Jerry Garcia and Allen Ginsberg, advocated the use of hallucinogenic drugs and the psychedelic experience. Use of LSD, mescaline, mushrooms, and other hallucinogens was seen as a gateway to creativity, personal development, and spiritual experiences. This widespread experimentation became a major part of the counterculture in the 1960s, and psychedelic drugs continue to be closely associated with events and people of that decade—rebellious hippies, massive social movements, and a number of important societal changes.
The War on Drugs
In 1961, an international treaty known as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs established rules for the manufacture and use of mood-altering drugs. An Act of the United Nations, the treaty was signed by 73 nations which all passed laws against the sale, trafficking, and use of the recreational drugs outlined in the treaty. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs consolidated earlier treaties addressing opium, coca, and their derivative substances (morphine, heroin, cocaine), and added cannabis and other drugs with similar effects. Currently over 100 drugs are controlled under the Single Convention, each placed into one of four schedules of varying restrictiveness. The use of psychoactive drugs under license for medical and research purposes is specifically addressed in the Single Convention, with medical uses clearly permitted under prescription and other restrictions. However, drug addiction and the use of controlled substances for other than medical or scientific purposes are condemned by the treaty.
While the Single Convention addressed the drugs that had been the greatest source of addiction in the past, it failed to encompass the psychoactive drugs that became quite popular during the decade following the Convention. To address these newer drugs of abuse, such as amphetamines, barbiturates, and psychedelics, another United Nations treaty was signed in 1971. The wording of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances was designed to allow for the potential inclusion of nearly any drug that fell outside the scope of the Single Convention. Like the Single Convention, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances also places drugs in schedules and attempts to limit use of psychoactive drugs to medical and scientific purposes.
These international treaties have shaped the way the modern world views psychoactive drugs and their use. Now tightly controlled, non-medical and non-scientific use of many of these drugs carries criminal penalties in most countries. Some drugs, like tobacco, alcohol, and caffeinated products, continue to be have legal recreational uses; the illegality of others, notably cannabis, are highly contested. Still, overall, the modern attitude toward the use of psychoactive drugs is that it can be dangerously addictive, prone to abuse, have negative health and social consequences, and should be well-regulated. Drugs that a century ago were widely and legally available in tonics, beverages, and medications—such as cocaine and heroin—have been recognized as highly addictive and their recreational use is now illegal.
While drug use was widely considered to be under the purview of medical professionals during the 19th century, early in the 20th century it became a social and criminal matter. In some ways, the modern view of drug use is similar to that of the late 19th century, based more heavily in science than in morality. Extensive research is being conducted in order to learn the biological and psychological roots of addiction, and treatment programs are available for addicts. At the same time, the use of psychoactive drugs continues to be criminalized in the modern world. Certain drugs, such as methamphetamine, crack, and heroin, are associated with criminal behavior and social deviation. Use of other drugs, particularly cannabis and abuse of prescription drugs, are associated with the middle and upper classes and are viewed more tolerantly by society—perhaps why they are the most frequently abused drugs in the United States. Just as patent medicines were a driving force behind the widespread drug addiction of the 19th century, in today's world prescription drugs are widely abused and a primary area of concern in the 21st century. Over the course of human history, as changes in religion, culture, and science have led to the creation of new drugs and discovery of new uses for old drugs, human society's attitudes toward psychoactive substances have continued to evolve, as they no doubt will continue to do in the future.