History of Drug Abuse Addiction

The History of Drug Abuse Addiction in America and the Origins of Drug Treatment

The history of drug abuse addiction in America started with our original colonies because of their use and addiction to opiate medications that were marketed to the colonies from London by America’s first pharmaceutical salesmen or drug pushers… (your choice). There isn’t any information that describes withdrawals and detox illnesses with our original ancestors, but one can assume that if they were regularly taking Laudanum, which is an opiate concoction, then when those supplies deminished from London, there were many left with the withdrawals and the “Flu-like” symptoms

Drug use can be documented back to the 1700’s when over-the-counter, patent medications were introduced for sale to the public.  According to James A. Inciardi in his book Handbook of Drug Control In the United States, opium was the most common ingredient in these medicines, marketed to soothe the pain from ailments such as diarrhea, colds, fever, tooth aches, cholera, rheumatism, pelvic disorders and even athlete’s foot and baldness. These remedies were advertised as “painkillers,” “cough mixtures,” “women’s friends,” and other such enticing labels.

Dr. William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, first published in Philadelphia in 1784 as a practical handbook on simple medicines for home use, recommended the tincture of opium (paragoric) for the treatment of common ailments.  Dr. Buchan gave the readers a recipe to make their own tincture of opium to keep around the house to address common medical problems and other discomforts.

The shipping of medicines from London ended with the Revolutionary War. The American manufacturers of medicines were the first business entrepreneurs to seek national markets through widespread advertising.  These medicines could be purchased in modest quantities from physicians, apothecaries, grocers, postmasters, and printers.  One can find advertisements for these elixirs in every form of printed news and entertainment publications.

It is easy to see how quickly these “medications’ grew from the following accounts:   A New York catalog listed some ninety brands of elixirs in 1804 and by 1857; a Boston periodical included almost 600 and in 1858; and one newspaper account totaled over 1,500 patent medicines. By 1905 the list grew to more than 28,000. One can assume that these “remedies” were used at a level bound to have been leading to some opiate addiction in America.  One must remember that in these times there were no government regulations on any of these addictive opiate concoctions1.

In 1803, a German pharmacist isolated the chief alkaloid of opium, which was basically morphine, named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.   Around the same time, the hypodermic needle was invented, and by the time of the Civil War morphine was injected as a potent painkiller.  Many German chemists played with the alkaloids of opium to create more and more potent opiate painkillers.  Friedrich Bayer, of the famous Bayer Aspirin, invented diacetylmorphine in 1898, to treat pneumonia and tuberculosis and named it Heroin, from the German “heroisch” meaning heroic and powerful.  Even though Bayer’s Heroin was promoted as a sedative for coughs and as a chest and lung medicine, it was advocated by some as a treatment for morphine addiction, since heroin was introduced as being non-addicting, and there we have the origin of “non-addictive” drugs being originally recommended to treat addiction with the subsequent paradox of creating many more addicts as a result.  We also find our first literature regarding the need for a treatment for drug addiction.

The availability of immediate pain relief was becoming part of the American culture. In 1900 it was estimated that the small state of Vermont sold 3.3 million doses of opium a month.  These were the times of the “snake oil” salesman.  They were the first hucksters to use psychological lures to entice customers to buy their merchandise.  The drug advertisements on television today assure us that the hucksters are still content with this effective level of marketing.

There were no legal restrictions on the importation or use of opium until the early 1900s. So by the turn of the 20th century there was unrestricted availability of opium, the influx of opium-smoking immigrants for East Asia, and the invention of the hypodermic needle, all of which were contributing to widespread compulsive drug abuse in America.