A Comprehensive Look at the History of Drugs

Delve into the riveting history of drugs, tracing policies, addiction, and treatments over centuries.

The Evolution of Drug Laws

The history of drugs and their legal implications has shifted and evolved over time. This section delves into the key legal milestones, starting with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and its impact on the landscape of drug offenses.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

The United States Congress introduced a new chapter in the history of drug legislation when they passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This Act, which became effective on October 27, 1970, created five drug classifications, also known as schedules. These classifications were based on a given drug's potential for abuse and harm to the public welfare.

The Act was particularly strict on Schedule I substances. These substances, defined as having "a high potential for abuse," have no accepted medical use and lack "accepted safety for use of the drug… under medical supervision." The Act made it illegal to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess Schedule I substances with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense them [1].

Impact on Drug Offenses

The passage of the Controlled Substances Act, along with other state and federal drug control acts in the early 1970s, led to a dramatic reduction in drug use among Americans. These laws also resulted in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973, significantly altering the relationship between citizens and law enforcement officials.

American narcotic policy has gone through four major stages in the past 100 years, from minimal government involvement to strict and punitive control, to a hybrid approach combining law enforcement and treatment, and back towards strict law enforcement.

Initially, federal drug policy focused heavily on narcotics control through law enforcement, with prevention and treatment being deemphasized. However, this trend began to decline with time.

In essence, the evolution of drug laws, starting notably with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, has had a profound impact on American society. It has influenced not only the legal ramifications of drug use but also the societal perceptions and responses to drug-related offenses.

Historical Context of Drug Use

Understanding the history of drugs provides valuable insights into their role and impact on society over time. This exploration covers the prevalence of drug use in ancient times and the shifts in drug use in American society.

Prevalence in Ancient Times

Drugs have been a part of human society since ancient times, with opium and hemp being two of the most dominant drugs in the ancient Mediterranean world. Evidence of their usage dates back to as early as 1600 BC, with artifacts excavated from regions like the Levant, Egypt, and the Middle East indicating a sophisticated system of manufacture and distribution [4].

Opium was grown in Mesopotamia, and it is believed that the Assyrians were aware of the plant's properties during this time. Researchers have found opium residue in jugs in Egyptian tombs, indicating extensive cultivation of the plant. The Greeks were familiar with opium varieties such as 'Opium Thebiacum' from Thebes and 'Opium Cyrenaicum' from Libya.

In ancient Rome, opium-based drinks like 'cretic wine' and 'mekonion' from poppy leaves were used as sleep aids. Opium tablets were sold in specialist stalls in most marketplaces, and Galen, a renowned physician, recommended a specific retailer in Rome. Since suicide was not considered a sin in Roman society, opium was often used by individuals to peacefully transition from life.

In addition to opium and hemp, the ancients used various other substances to alter their reality, such as ergot, blue lotus, mad honey, henbane, deadly nightshade, and dreamfish. Each of these substances had different effects, ranging from hallucinations to mild euphoria and altered consciousness.

Shifts in American Society

The role of drugs and alcohol in American society has been significant, with their introduction dating back to as early as the 1500s. Tobacco and alcohol were among the first substances to be introduced in the U.S., followed by marijuana in the 1600s and opium in the 1800s, which was thought to have medicinal properties. European chemists separated morphine from opium in the early 1800s [5].

Since then, the perception of drugs and their use has undergone significant shifts. The development and understanding of drug addiction, along with changes in drug laws and policies, have played a crucial role in shaping the current state of drug use in American society. As we delve deeper into the history of drugs, it becomes clear that the usage, acceptance, and regulation of these substances have been a complex and evolving aspect of our society.

Drug Policy in the United States

The United States has had a complex and evolving relationship with drug policy, which has greatly influenced the nation's approach to drug use and addiction. In this section, we delve into the four major stages of American narcotic policy and their impact on narcotic use.

Four Major Stages

American narcotic policy has experienced a significant evolution over the past century, transitioning through four major stages. These stages represent shifts in societal attitudes, governmental intervention, and law enforcement strategies towards drug use.

  1. Minimal Government Involvement: During the early part of the 20th century, government involvement in drug control was limited, with few regulations in place to control drug use or distribution.
  2. Strict and Punitive Control: The government began to implement strict drug control laws in the mid-20th century, leading to punitive measures for drug offenses and a strong focus on law enforcement.
  3. Hybrid Approach: By the late 20th century, the government had shifted towards a hybrid approach combining law enforcement with prevention and treatment efforts.
  4. Return to Law Enforcement: In recent decades, there has been a return to a more law enforcement-focused approach to drug control.

Impact on Narcotic Use

These shifts in policy have had a profound impact on narcotic use in the United States. The passage of state and federal drug control acts in the early 1970s led to a dramatic reduction in drug use among Americans and the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. This significantly altered the relationship between citizens and law enforcement officials, with a heightened emphasis on policing and penalties for drug offenses.

However, federal drug policy became increasingly concentrated on narcotics control through law enforcement, and prevention and treatment were deemphasized. This trend has begun to decline over time, with a greater emphasis now being placed on understanding addiction as a complex brain disease that requires time to repair brain circuits and end drug-seeking behavior. As a result, a shift towards holistic care focusing on the individual's mind, body, and spirit has become prominent in the drug policy landscape [5].

The history of drugs and drug policy in the United States is a complex and evolving story, reflecting societal attitudes towards drug use, the role of law enforcement, and our understanding of addiction. This narrative continues to unfold, shaping the national dialogue on drug use and addiction.

International Perspectives on Drug Policy

Exploring the history of drugs from an international perspective, two key instances provide significant insights: Canada's evolution of prohibition and the Opium Wars in China.

Canada's Prohibition Evolution

In Canada, the prohibition of drugs was historically rooted in a Protestant Christian ethic. This was primarily used as a means to exert social control over racialized nations and communities. The colonial discourse saw drug consumption as a contagion brought by racialized outsiders, perceived as a threat to white middle-class morality.

Notably, substances like opium, coca, and cannabis were legal in Canada from the 1700s to 1800s and often used for medicinal purposes. Nevertheless, societal views on drugs shifted due to Protestant influence, uneasiness in the medical community, and colonial discourse, leading to the criminalization of drug use.

Furthermore, historical events such as the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China in the 19th century influenced Canada's drug policy. The portrayal of opium smoking as inherently "foreign" and dangerous, particularly linked to Chinese men, laid a foundation for prohibitionist drug policies and resulted in health and social harms.

The criminalization of drug use intensified in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s with the introduction of the National Anti-Drug Strategy, emphasizing law enforcement over harm reduction. This approach, influenced by the United States' "war on drugs", perpetuated long-held stereotypes and myths about substance use.

Opium Wars in China

In China, the history of drugs is deeply intertwined with the Opium Wars of the 19th century. The Chinese government initially banned the production and importation of opium in 1800 to address the growing social problem. Despite this, the British East India Company employed private traders to transport the drug to China, leading to a rise in Chinese smugglers and a rapid increase in opium imports [7].

In response to the opium crisis, the Chinese government was divided on how to proceed. One faction advocated for legalizing and taxing the opium trade, arguing it would make the drug expensive and reduce consumption. Another faction, led by Lin Zexu, believed in eliminating the opium trade and punishing the "pushers" who imported and sold the drug. Ultimately, Lin Zexu's viewpoint prevailed, sparking a campaign against the opium trade and instigating the first Opium War.

The first Opium War ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanjing, granting extraordinary benefits to the British, including the cession of Hong Kong, payment of an indemnity, and full diplomatic relations. The treaty also terminated the Canton System and opened China to unequal treaties with western powers, leading to increased Christian missionary work and the continuation of the opium trade. This war weakened the Qing Dynasty and initiated China's "century of humiliation" [7].

These historical perspectives reveal how international drug policies have evolved over time and the underlying societal and cultural factors that have influenced these changes. The history of drugs is a complex tapestry, woven with threads of societal norms, political influence, and human struggle.

Understanding Drug Addiction

In the context of the history of drugs, understanding addiction is integral. It's a complex issue with multiple components and has been studied for centuries, with the science continually evolving.

Components of Substance Addiction

Drug addiction is often thought of as an adjunctive behavior, a mode of compensation for a decrease in Darwinian fitness. There are three main components involved in substance addiction: developmental attachment, pharmacological mechanism, and social phylogeny which includes elements of social inequality, dominance, and social dependence [8].

Components of Substance AddictionDescriptionDevelopmental attachmentThe emotional connection formed between the user and the substance.Pharmacological mechanismThe biochemical processes that occur in the body when the substance is consumed.Social PhylogenyThe societal factors, including social inequality, dominance and social dependence, that contribute to substance addiction.

These components are interconnected and together contribute to the development and persistence of addiction.

Neurobiological Aspects

On a neurobiological level, drug addiction may initially cause and then further exacerbate "reward deficiency syndrome," where chemical imbalances within the intracellular cascade manifest themselves as behavioral disorders [8].

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 increasingly widespread use of morphine revolutionized pain control.

Interestingly, early in the 20th century, research related to discoveries about the immune system proposed the possible creation in the user's body of either antibodies or a toxin to morphine. In 1914, Valenti stated that he had extracted serum from dogs undergoing the abstinence reaction and was able to produce similar effects by injecting the serum into normal animals—giving support for the hypothesis that a toxin produced abstinence effects.

The understanding of the neurobiological aspects of addiction has come a long way since these early hypotheses and discoveries. Today, the focus is on understanding the complex interplay of brain chemistry, genetics, and environmental factors in addiction to better inform prevention and treatment strategies.

Treatment Approaches Over Time

Examining the history of drugs also involves understanding the evolution of treatment approaches for drug addiction. Over the years, societal and scientific perceptions of addiction have changed dramatically, leading to significant progress in addiction treatment.

Historical Perceptions of Addiction

A century ago, drug addicts were perceived as morally degenerate, and addiction was not recognized as a disease. Instead of treatment, addicts were often imprisoned or placed in asylums [5]. This punitive approach lacked compassion and did little to address the root cause of addiction.

However, attitudes began to shift in the 1960s, with a growing understanding that alcoholism, and by extension drug addiction, was a disease. This led to lawmakers recommending treatment instead of prosecution. During this period, doctors began studying addiction to find medications that could aid in the detoxification and withdrawal process. Yet, the medical community's focus was primarily on detox, and support beyond this stage was limited.

Progress in Addiction Treatment

In the past three decades, there has been significant progress in understanding addiction as a complex brain disease. This knowledge has advanced the approach to treatment, recognizing that time is necessary to repair brain circuits and cease drug-seeking behavior [5].

Various therapies are now available to help recovering addicts address underlying issues and manage temptation. These therapies not only focus on the physical aspects of addiction but also delve into the psychological and emotional factors that contribute to drug-seeking behavior.

The shift towards a more holistic approach to care has become prominent in recent years. This approach emphasizes treating the individual's mind, body, and spirit, recognizing that these elements are intertwined and that healing one facet can facilitate the healing of others.

The evolution of addiction treatment reflects the broader changes in societal attitudes towards addiction. It underscores the importance of compassionate, individualized care in helping individuals overcome addiction, fostering healthier communities, and contributing to a more empathetic understanding of the history of drugs.


[1]: https://www.arnoldsmithlaw.com/the-history-of-drug-laws.html

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234755/

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

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

[5]: https://www.theriversource.org/blog/how-our-perception-of-drug-abuse-has-changed-over-the-years/

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

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

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

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