History Of Substance Use

June 30, 2024
By Arch Recovery Center
Delve into the compelling history of substance use, from ancient practices to modern understanding.

Ancient Substance Use

The history of substance use is as old as human civilization itself. It dates back to the dawn of human history when our ancestors discovered the psychoactive properties of certain plants and substances. These substances were initially used for medicinal and spiritual purposes, but with time, their recreational use also became prevalent.

Opium in Ancient Civilizations

One of the earliest known substances used by humans is opium. The roots of opium use trace back to ancient civilizations such as ancient Egypt, where it was used as a pain reliever and sedative around 1500 BCE. Opium was also popular in ancient Mesopotamia and India, where it was used for similar purposes.

For instance, dominant patterns of use of psychoactive substances varied according to epochs and places. New World plants such as tobacco (nicotine) and coca (cocaine) are relative newcomers to the Old World. Conversely, poppy (opium) and hemp (cannabis) originated in Eurasia. Alcohol, however, has been used by virtually all cultures [2].

Substance Origin
Tobacco (Nicotine) New World
Coca (Cocaine) New World
Poppy (Opium) Eurasia
Hemp (Cannabis) Eurasia
Alcohol Global

Medicinal Use in Early Cultures

Substances weren't just used recreationally in the ancient world. Many substances, including opium and cannabis, were used medicinally by early cultures. For example, ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese, had extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and their healing properties. These cultures developed sophisticated systems of medicine based on herbal remedies and other natural substances.

Evidence of medicinal substance use can also be found in the remains of early humans. For instance, Ötzi, the man whose frozen body was recovered in the Alps in 1991, carried in his pouch a travel pharmacy including a polypore fungus with antibacterial and hemostatic properties.

The history of substance use serves as a testament to human ingenuity and curiosity. Whether used for medicinal, recreational, or spiritual purposes, substances have been a part of human culture for millennia. Understanding this history can provide valuable insights into the current issues surrounding substance use and addiction.

Evolution of Substance Use

As the world has evolved, so too has the nature and understanding of substance use. From the ancient civilizations to the modern era, the impact of industrialization and globalization have played significant roles in the accessibility and prevalence of substance use.

Impact of Industrialization

The industrial revolution brought about a significant shift in the history of substance use. Technological advancements led to the discovery and synthesis of new substances. For example, the first addictive ingredient, morphine, was isolated from crude opium by a German pharmacist in 1806, revolutionizing pain control [3].

Industrialization also led to the commercialization of certain substances, which in turn influenced their prevalence and societal acceptance. The mass production and distribution of substances were made possible, leading to an increased availability and accessibility of substances among the public.

Globalization and Substance Availability

Globalization further impacted the landscape of substance use. As borders became more permeable and transportation and communication systems improved, the spread of substances across cultures and countries was facilitated. This led to a significant increase in the availability and accessibility of substances.

For instance, New World plants such as tobacco and coca are relative newcomers to the Old World, while poppy and hemp originated in Eurasia. However, alcohol has been used by virtually all cultures throughout history.

In summary, the evolution of substance use has been significantly influenced by the progression of industrialization and globalization. These historical shifts have not only altered the types of substances used but also the societal perceptions and attitudes towards substance use. As we continue to understand the impacts of these shifts, it becomes increasingly clear that the history of substance use is a complex interplay of societal, cultural, and technological factors.

Historical Perspectives on Addiction

Understanding the history of substance use requires delving into how societies over the centuries have perceived and dealt with addiction. The concept of addiction and its treatment has evolved significantly from ancient times to the present day, influenced by cultural, social, and medical perspectives.

Concept of Addiction in Ancient Times

The issue of loss of control over substance use, a hallmark of today's understanding of addiction, was already a topic of discussion as far back as the 17th century. Attempts to understand the nature of illicit drug abuse and addiction can be traced back centuries, but these efforts were often limited by the scientific theories and social attitudes prevalent at the time.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a founder of the first medical school in the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of the pioneers of U.S. drug abuse research. However, he had few scientific resources available to analyze the problem. It wasn't until the development of modern scientific tools and understanding of cellular biochemistry in the past decade that a more comprehensive study of addiction became possible.

Calvinist Influence on Addiction Medicine

The historical roots of addiction medicine can be traced back to the 18th century, when Calvinist theologians offered explanations for the phenomenon of compulsive drinking, which were later accepted by physicians [2]. These early interpretations, steeped in religious ideology, would come to shape the medical understanding of addiction.

The Calvinists viewed compulsive drinking as a moral failing, a perspective that influenced the treatment approaches of the time. This moralistic view of addiction persisted for centuries and continues to influence societal attitudes towards substance use today. However, the understanding of addiction has evolved to recognize it as a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors, which has led to more compassionate and effective treatment approaches.

In summary, the history of substance use and addiction is a testament to the evolution of societal attitudes and scientific understanding. As we continue to learn more about the nature of addiction, it is hoped that more effective prevention and treatment strategies will be developed to address this public health issue.

Cultural Influences on Substance Use

The cultural aspects related to substance use are crucial when considering the history of substance use. Societal acceptance, peer pressure, and the influence of media and influencers all play pivotal roles in shaping attitudes toward drug use.

Social Acceptance and Peer Pressure

Social acceptance and peer pressure significantly contribute to the normalization of drug use. Peer influence can heavily impact an individual's decision to engage in drug use. In many societies and social circles, substance use is seen as a norm, and individuals may feel compelled to partake due to the fear of exclusion or the desire for acceptance.

The normalization of drug use extends beyond the individual, having a profound impact on societal norms and attitudes. Substance use occurs within a cultural context and is influenced by various factors, including social activities, potential legal consequences, and youthful rebellion. These factors impart greater significance to drug use behaviors, creating a complex intersection between personal choice and societal influence [4].

Influence of Media and Influencers

The role of media in shaping public perceptions and attitudes towards substance use cannot be underestimated. Portrayals of drug use in movies and TV shows can contribute to the normalization of drug use, especially when it's glamorized or depicted without highlighting the associated risks and consequences.

In addition to traditional media, the rise of social media platforms has amplified the influence that individuals, known as influencers, can have on societal norms and behaviors. Influencer culture significantly influences the normalization of drug use by shaping the attitudes and behaviors of their followers, especially impressionable individuals. They can inadvertently promote substance use through their posts and lifestyle portrayals, further entrenching the issue within societal norms.

Understanding the cultural influences on substance use is crucial in comprehending the history and evolution of substance use. It's important to consider these factors when discussing and addressing substance use and addiction, as they provide a wider context for understanding these complex issues.

Social Stigma and Treatment

The social stigma associated with substance use and mental health treatment has had a significant impact on the history of substance use. This section will explore societal attitudes towards mental health treatment and the public perception of substance use.

Attitudes Toward Mental Health Treatment

Historically, the stigma surrounding mental health treatment has been a significant barrier to seeking and receiving effective care. However, research indicates that these attitudes have been shifting over time. A detailed analysis of the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication showed that societal stigma associated with mental health treatment has decreased, and support among the general public for treatment-seeking has increased (Mojtabai, 2007).

A survey conducted in 2007 and 2009 showed that more than 80 percent of U.S. adults agreed that mental illness treatment is effective; individuals living in states with higher per capita expenditures on mental health services were more likely to agree that treatment is effective and were more likely to report receiving treatment (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention et al., 2012).

These findings suggest a growing acceptance and understanding of mental health treatment within society, which is an encouraging trend in the history of substance use.

Public Perception of Substance Use

The public perception of substance use has also evolved over time. Comparing the results of the 1996 General Social Survey (GSS) stigma modules with those of surveys conducted in the 1950s showed that public knowledge about mental and substance use disorders increased, especially in relation to the neurobiological underpinnings of these disorders (Pescosolido, 2013; Pescosolido et al., 2010).

However, despite these positive trends, some persistent prejudices remain. In the Stigma in Global Context Study, which surveyed multiple countries, it was found that while recognition, acceptance of neurobiological causes of mental illness and substance use, and treatment endorsement were high, a core of five prejudice items persisted (Pescosolido et al., 2013).

Interestingly, an experimental study found that sharing stories of recovery can have a positive impact on public perception. The researchers found that these stories decreased prejudiced attitudes toward people with mental illness and drug addiction and increased belief in treatment efficacy (McGinty et al., 2015).

These findings underscore the importance of continuing efforts to reduce stigma and prejudice associated with mental illness and substance use. As societal attitudes and public perception continue to evolve, it is hoped that more individuals will feel empowered to seek the help they need without fear of stigma or judgment.

Modern Understanding of Addiction

Today's grasp of substance use and addiction has come a long way from previous eras. Current interpretations are backed by scientific research, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. This section will delve into the definition and characteristics of addiction, as well as its etiology and the historical research that has shaped our understanding.

Definition and Characteristics

Addiction is defined as a "strong dependence, both physiologic and emotional," characterized by a pattern of administration that can progress from use, to abuse, to dependence. This progression is also marked by the activation of the brain's reward system and the adaptation of prefrontal glutamatergic innervation to the nucleus accumbens.

In simpler terms, addiction is a chronic disease involving a complex interplay between physiological and emotional factors. It is characterized by an inability to control the use of a substance despite harmful consequences.

Etiology and Historical Research

The etiology, or cause, of addiction is intricate and multifaceted. It can be seen as a pendulum swinging 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.

Efforts 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 [3].

While the funding of drug abuse research has increased substantially since the 1960s, significant research began much earlier. For instance, the first addictive ingredient isolated from a natural product was morphine, extracted from crude opium by F.W.A. Serturner, a German pharmacist, in 1806.

This historical research, combined with modern scientific advances, provides an evolving understanding of the history of substance use, shaping our current perceptions and treatment methods for addiction. As our comprehension continues to deepen, so too will our ability to address and combat the challenges posed by addiction.


[1]: https://www.northstarbehavioralhealthmn.com/resources/history-of-substance-use

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

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

[4]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690817/

[5]: https://www.coniferpark.com/blog/normalization-of-drug-use-in-society

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