Need Help Overcoming Addiction?
Call Us Today! 1-888-747-7155
Need Help Understanding Your Addiction Treatment Options? Call 1-888-747-7155.

History of Drug Abuse

  1. Article Quick LinksPrint
  2. History of Substance Abuse Rehabilitation
  3. Drug Trends Prior to 2000
  4. Historical Drug Abuse

The human race's historical record contains numerous examples of substance use and abuse.

The human race's historical record contains numerous examples of substance use and abuse.

As drugs have been abused for hundreds of years all over the world, their effects have been felt for just as long. Since drugs have been used, there were always those who abused them, which led to full-blown addiction and the bevy of side effects that come with it. As the physical and mental health implications of addiction became clearer, rehabilitation efforts began to appear. As a result, the history of rehabilitation in the United States dates back hundreds of years.

History of Substance Abuse Rehabilitation

One of the Founding Fathers of America, Benjamin Rush, was one of the first to believe that alcoholism was not a matter of personal willpower but rather due to the alcohol itself. Rush challenged the accepted belief at the time that alcoholism was a moral failing, thereby progressing the concept of addiction as a disease. Per the University of Utah, in the past, addiction was treated as a criminal offense, with intensive faith-based prayer, or in mental institutions, but this signified a shift to viewing addiction as an illness that could be managed.

In 1864, the New York State Inebriate Asylum, the first hospital intended to solely treat alcoholism as a mental health condition, was founded. As the public began to view alcoholism and related drug abuse more seriously, more community groups and sober houses began appearing.

Following Prohibition and the Twenty-first Amendment, which overturned Prohibition, a major step for the rehabilitation movement came in 1935, when Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson – commonly known as Dr. Bob and Bill W. – founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Using a spiritually based approach to rehabilitation, AA presented a welcoming environment where recovering alcoholics could find solace and support. From the AA format, various other branches formed, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and Marijuana Anonymous (MA).

Credit: A Round for the House – A History of Drinking in America. Produced by Stephen R. Powell and Thomas P. McDade

Today, thousands of drug abuse rehabilitation programs offer addicts a variety of treatment approaches, ranging from traditional, evidenced-based care to more experimental or holistic services. Since care should be customized according to the individual patient, oftentimes one’s treatment regime will consist of a range of therapies that have been chosen specifically for the individual.

Drug abuse has plagued the American continent since the 1800s, when morphine, heroin and cocaine were hailed for their amazing curative properties. By the mid-20th century, however, illicit drug use was all but eradicated in the U.S. through focused national and global suppression of the industry. All that changed in the 1960s when many new and exotic drugs, such as hallucinogens, amphetamines and marijuana, became more readily available. The proliferation of these substances birthed many government agencies, all commissioned to counter the scourge of illegal drugs. These bureaucracies, in turn, needed statistical information in order to effectively understand the scope of their task. In due course, they discovered that:

  • Between 1980 and 1984, first-time cocaine users averaged 1.3 million per year
  • By 1994, that number dwindled to 533,000
  • In 1995, 5,000,000 Americans confessed to smoking marijuana on a frequent basis
  • In 1996, the Office of Drug Control Policy detected an increase in heroin use among youth and young adults
  • Between 1992 and 1993, 5.5 percent of pregnant women per year took some form of illicit drug

Early agricultural advancements led to the cultivation of various grains and, consequently, beer.

Early agricultural advancements led to the cultivation of various grains and, consequently, beer.

Historical Drug Abuse

Since the dawn of history, mankind has found ways to relieve the daily grind of life. In ancient Mesopotamia (the area now known as Iraq), agriculture slowly began to flourish, and a large network of city states started to gain prominence. With the cultivation of wheat and barley came another product: beer. After all, the water wasn't particularly healthy, and the weak alcohol content in beer killed off a lot of harmful organisms in the water.

While the beer wasn't particularly strong, it also wasn't particularly nice, as the concept of sterility was unknown in 3,000 BCE. However, beer was consumed in bulk, and even the gods enjoyed getting drunk. Consequently, addiction to alcohol was rampant in the so-called cradle of civilization, and people during that time generally lived much shorter lives thanks to disease and, presumably, drunkenness.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 1

Throughout this time, the Indians, Assyrians and Egyptians were cultivating and preparing opium from the opium poppy. Indeed, the upper classes of many civilizations would use this to relax and pass time, although some uses are much less benign. One Egyptian scroll recommends using opium to soothe a crying baby.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 2

Moving on 15 centuries, the cults of Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone in ancient Greece used a special form of mead (fermented honey) or beer to induce visions known as mysteries. Naturally, there is something very mystical in seeing hallucinations, and plants containing entheogens (natural chemicals that induce hallucinations) have been widely cultivated throughout the world; these include the peyote cactus, fly agaric and cannabis. Clearly, this is a form of drug abuse, although it was a socially acceptable one at the time.

While the Romans embraced these drugs for recreational use because of the ease of obtaining them through trade, there was a long period of time after the fall of the Roman empire known as the Dark Ages-possibly because there were so many knights-where relatively few intoxicants were imported to Europe. Over the Atlantic, the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans were experimenting with peyote, cannabis and mescaline to induce shamanic visions. Around 1200 CE, the Incas started using coca leaves as payment for goods. These leaves can be purified to make cocaine, and the leaves would be chewed to provide sustenance.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 3

During the second millennium, world trade started to be more prominent. Ships started sailing from China to Europe-Marco Polo rediscovered major trade routes to India and China, and in 1492, a horribly lost expedition led by Christopher Columbus bumbled into Hispaniola, which is the island that encompasses the Dominican Republic and Haiti. After that, the American continent became ripe for development. Various conquistadors discovered the drugs that kept the locals going, especially cocaine, which was touted as a wonder cure for all ailments.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 4

One of the major drugs that came out of the New World was tobacco. Sir Walter Raleigh famously introduced dried tobacco leaves to England, where they were controlled and taxed heavily. Again, abuse of tobacco led to very expensive addictions, as it was a risky but incredibly profitable voyage for those who made it over the Atlantic.

Historically, shipping trade routes spurred economic growth in earlier times. Unfortunately, they also facilitated the spread of substance abuse problems, such as seen with alcohol and opium.

Historically, shipping trade routes spurred economic growth in earlier times. Unfortunately, they also facilitated the spread of substance abuse problems, such as seen with alcohol and opium.

Opium eventually made it to China, and the local Chinese started trading it with the British, French and Dutch traders. It started arriving in Europe and the Americas in bulk in the late 17th century, when it swiftly became a problem. With improved ships that could carry more cargo, traders could get almost anywhere in the world and bring back whatever they could get their hands on. Without control, drugs ran rampant through middle and upper society. The poor were no better off; in Europe-particularly in Britain-gin had become a nuisance thanks to some exceptionally poorly thought-out laws, and in the Americas, cannabis, rum and beer were proving problematic for colonists.

While the use of opium for dulling pain was well known by physicians worldwide, the real problem began with the isolation of morphine from opium in 1804. Introduced commercially in 1827, morphine quickly became the drug of choice, particularly after the advent of the hypodermic syringe in 1853. With few effective controls on its production and sale, it rapidly reached epidemic levels in the United States thanks to the American Civil War. Around 45,000 soldiers came home from this war unable to function without morphine, according to Time's The Civil War: An Illustrated History. A similar effect was observed in the Franco-Prussian wars between France and Germany.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 5

In the late half of the 19th century, drug abuse was so widespread that Britain went to war twice with China to keep opium trade routes open, and these naturally became known as the Opium Wars. Cocaine was isolated in 1884 and quickly became yet another widespread drug of abuse. Heroin and other opiates were synthesized and marketed as nonaddictive alternatives to morphine. Of course, heroin was addictive, causing more people to abuse the drug.

Thanks to increased chemical and drug development in the 20th century, more drugs with abuse potential became available. LSD, methamphetamine and synthetic opiates are all relatively recent drugs. To counter the growing tide of addiction, drug laws became stricter, and drug addiction started to carry a serious social stigma.

History of Drug Abuse Quiz question 6

Fortunately, there are now places to help people with addictions lead a healthy life. While early 20th-century society felt drug addiction was a moral flaw, it is now recognized for what it is: a disease. Consequently, if you call us at (800) 943-0566, our treatment support can help locate a center that will help you avoid the pitfalls that beset a world with a longstanding history of substance abuse.

Need Help Understanding Your Addiction Treatment Options? Call 1-888-747-7155.