Uncovering the History of Drugs

June 30, 2024
By Arch Recovery Center
Discover the intriguing history of drugs, from early human records to modern addiction medicine.

Historical Perspectives on Drug Use

Understanding the history of drugs provides invaluable insights into humanity's relationship with these substances. This exploration commences with the earliest human records and traces the evolution of drug use over time.

Early Human Records

Our affinity for psychoactive substances is well-documented in the earliest human records. These addictive substances have historically been used by priests in religious ceremonies, healers for medicinal purposes, or the general populace in a socially approved manner. Remarkably, discussions surrounding the loss of control over substance use—a precursor to the modern understanding of addiction—can be traced back to the 17th century [1].

Furthermore, archaeological evidence demonstrates that psychotropic plants and drug use have been integral to human civilizations for thousands of years. These findings reveal the presence of such plants and related drug use among early hominid species dating back approximately 200 million years ago.

Notably, opium and hemp were two dominant drugs in the ancient Mediterranean world. Opium usage has been traced back to as early as 1600 BC, with various forms of the substance found in jars and capsules throughout the Levant, Egypt, and the Middle East. The Assyrians recognized the plant's properties, and the Egyptians extensively cultivated poppies, as evidenced by opium residue found in their tombs.

Evolution of Drug Use

The distribution and use of natural drugs in ancient environments indicate that psychotropic plants evolved recurrently throughout evolutionary history. These plants developed allelochemical responses to deter threats from herbivores and pathogenic invasions. Interestingly, these responses evolved to imitate mammalian neurotransmitters, allowing them to act as competitive binders and obstruct normal Central Nervous System (CNS) functioning.

The mammalian brain itself evolved receptor systems for plant substances, such as the opioid receptor system, not available by the mammalian body itself. This points to a co-evolutionary relationship between humans and psychoactive plants, shaping both biological and cultural evolution.

Moreover, research suggests that substance abuse tendencies may be inherited through phenotypic liabilities, with certain genetic factors correlated with drug and alcohol dependence. This suggests that individuals addicted to substances may be genetically predisposed to addiction, further influenced by environmental stimuli.

This examination of the history of drugs illustrates a complex interplay of biological, social, and cultural factors influencing drug use, offering valuable insights for addressing contemporary issues surrounding drug use and addiction.

Drug Policies Through History

The history of drugs is not only about the substances themselves, but also about the laws and regulations that have been enacted over the years to control their use. The following sections will examine three key pieces of legislation that have played significant roles in the United States' drug policy.

The Harrison Act of 1914

The Harrison Act, passed by Congress in 1914, marked a pivotal point in the history of drugs in the United States. This act regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and cocaine [4].

This was one of the earliest attempts by the US government to control the use of drugs, setting the stage for future drug policies. While the act did not outright criminalize the use of these drugs, it did criminalize their sale and possession without proper documentation, making it much harder for the average person to legally obtain these substances.

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

In 1937, the United States passed the Marijuana Tax Act. This act did not outright criminalize the use or possession of marijuana, but it did place a tax on the sale of cannabis, hemp, or marijuana. Individuals faced hefty penalties if taxes were avoided, including a $2000 fine and up to five years in prison.

While the act was ostensibly about taxation, it effectively served to limit the accessibility and use of marijuana. The high penalties served as a strong deterrent, contributing to the perception of marijuana as a dangerous and illicit substance.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970. This act classified drugs into five schedules based on their medical application and potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs, including marijuana, LSD, heroin, and MDMA (ecstasy), were considered highly addictive with minimal medical benefits.

The CSA was a significant piece of legislation in the history of drugs as it formed the basis for current drug laws in the United States. It also marked a shift in drug policy towards stricter regulation and criminalization of drug use, a trend that continued with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

These three acts have had a profound impact on the history of drugs in the United States, shaping societal attitudes towards drug use and influencing the country's approach to drug policy. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of drug use and addiction, understanding this history is crucial in informing future policies and interventions.

Drug Use in the United States

The history of drugs in the United States has seen a range of changes, from relatively unrestricted use and distribution to stringent regulation and criminalization. This history provides crucial context for understanding today's drug policies and their impacts.

Sears and Roebuck Catalogue Offer

As an illustration of the early history of drugs, one can look to the late 19th-century Sears and Roebuck catalogue. This popular mail-order catalogue, which served customers across the U.S., once included an offer for a syringe and a small amount of cocaine for just $1.50. This offer, remarkable to modern readers, is a clear indication of a time when drug use for medicinal and recreational purposes was commonplace and largely unrestricted in the United States.

Impact of Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

Moving forward to the modern era, legislation such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 has had a significant impact on drug use and regulation. This Act, part of the broader "War on Drugs," led to a surge in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses. In 1980, the number of people incarcerated for these offenses was 50,000. By 1997, this number had ballooned to 400,000.

Year Number of Incarcerations for Nonviolent Drug Offenses
1980 50,000
1997 400,000

Even more strikingly, nearly half of the 186,000 people in federal prisons by 2014 were incarcerated on drug-related charges [4].

The history of drugs in the United States, from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, offers valuable insights into the evolution of societal attitudes, legal frameworks, and the consequences of drug use and regulation. As we continue to grapple with these issues today, it's essential to consider this historical context.

Drug Use in Canada

The history of drugs in Canada, like in many other parts of the world, is rooted in cultural, social, and political contexts. From the introduction of alcohol to Indigenous communities by European settlers to the evolution of drug prohibition policies, the story of drug use in Canada offers a unique perspective on the broader history of drugs.

Introduction of Alcohol to Indigenous Communities

The use of alcohol in Canada dates back to the 1500s when it was introduced to Indigenous communities by European settlers. This was part of a broader agenda to convert Indigenous peoples to Western Christian religions and morals. The introduction of alcohol had devastating impacts on these communities, disrupting social structures and leading to widespread addiction and health issues [5].

Evolution of Drug Prohibition

Canada's drug prohibition policies evolved from the Protestant Christian ethic of the 1700s and were largely used as a means of social control over racialized nations and communities. These policies were built on the belief that drugs were inherently bad and a corrupting force [5].

In the 1700s and 1800s, psychoactive substances such as opium, coca, and cannabis were legal in Canada and widely used for medical purposes. Opium, for example, was brought to North America by European settlers and used as medicine in various forms.

The Opium Wars between Great Britain and China in the 19th century played a significant role in shaping Canada's drug policies. Christian missionaries framed opium smoking as a foreign and dangerous practice, while Britain's own opium trade was largely overlooked [5].

The momentum for drug prohibition and criminalization in Canada picked up in the early 20th century. The Opium Act of 1908 marked a significant turning point by criminalizing non-medical uses of opium. Subsequent legislation expanded the list of prohibited substances, further shaping the drug landscape in Canada [5].

This exploration of Canada's history with drug use and policy underlines the complex ways in which societal norms, politics, and cultural bias can shape the approach taken towards substances. It serves as a reminder of the importance of understanding the history of drugs in order to inform current conversations and future policies.

Opium Wars and Drug Policies

The Opium Wars, which took place in the 19th century, significantly influenced global drug policies and had far-reaching consequences for many countries, including China and Canada. These conflicts marked a pivotal chapter in the history of drugs.

Opium Wars in China

The Opium Wars were two significant conflicts that occurred between Great Britain and China due to disputes over trade and diplomatic relations, particularly regarding the opium trade.

The First Opium War broke out in 1839 when Chinese official Lin Zexu seized large amounts of opium from foreign ships and discarded it into the sea. Britain retaliated, resulting in a war that lasted until 1842. The British emerged victorious, leading to the Treaty of Nanking that ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain and forced China to compensate for the destroyed opium.

Not long after, in 1856, the Second Opium War erupted due to Britain's dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Nanking and its demand for further concessions from China. Once again, Britain won the war, leading to the Treaty of Tientsin. This treaty awarded Britain the area north of Hong Kong Island called Kowloon.

These conflicts had a lasting impact on China. They undermined China's trade in tea, perpetuated the opium trade, and escalated the cost of opium addiction. The wars also weakened the Qing Dynasty and prompted China to reassess its relations with the outside world and modernize its military, political, and economic structures.

Impact on Drug Policies

The Opium Wars had a profound influence on global drug policies. For example, in Canada, these wars played a role in shaping the country's drug policies. Christian missionaries framed opium smoking as a foreign and dangerous practice, while Britain's own opium trade was largely overlooked [5].

Moreover, the Opium Wars led to the creation of the British colony of Hong Kong through the First and Second Opium Wars. A lease in 1898 allowed Britain to control even more land, which ran out in 1997.

The aftermath of these wars serves as a reminder of the far-reaching implications of drug trade and policies. The history of drugs, specifically the opium trade, has shaped international relations, influenced policy making, and left a lasting mark on societies around the world.

Evolution of Addiction Medicine

The historical journey of addiction medicine is a fascinating tale. From early theological explanations to modern medical definitions, our understanding of addiction has been shaped by scientific, social, and cultural shifts.

Calvinist Theologians' Influence

The historical roots of addiction medicine can be traced back to Calvinist theologians who offered explanations for compulsive drinking, which were later accepted by physicians. These early interpretations framed addiction in moral and spiritual contexts, a perspective that would later evolve with the advent of new scientific theories and methodologies.

Modern Definition of Addiction

Attempts to understand the nature of illicit drug abuse and addiction can be traced back for centuries, however, the search has always been limited by the scientific theories and social attitudes available or dominant at any one time [8].

Addiction is reflected in the frequent pendulum swings between opposing attitudes on issues that are still currently being debated, such as: is addiction a sin or a disease; should treatment be moral or medical; is addiction caused by the substance; the individual's vulnerability and psychology, or social factors; should substances be regulated or freely available [1].

The intricacies of cellular response to a drug could not be understood until tools were developed to measure the response and to integrate this knowledge with complex cellular biochemistry—a technology that has been developed only in the past decade.

Around the turn of the century, several new medical research issues attracted investigators: communicable diseases, bacteria, and viruses; the immune system, with its antibodies and antigens; autointoxication, or the body poisoning itself; the endocrine glands and their production of hormones; and the rapidly developing fields of biochemistry and pharmacology. A number of researchers in the United States and abroad attempted to apply those contemporary approaches to the study of illicit drug abuse, addiction (specifically, opiate addiction), and its treatment.

This provides a snapshot of the rich tapestry of the history of drugs and addiction medicine. The evolution of addiction medicine continues, with ongoing research providing new insights into the complex nature of addiction, its causes, and potential treatments.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202501/

[2]: https://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1477-7517-2-8

[3]: https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-history/ancient-drug-use-history-how-what-for-opium-hemp/

[4]: https://www.history.com/topics/crime/the-war-on-drugs

[5]: https://drugpolicy.ca/about/history/

[6]: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/hong-kong-and-the-opium-wars/

[7]: https://asiapacificcurriculum.ca/learning-module/opium-wars-china

[8]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232965/

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