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History of Drug Abuse and Addiction in the U.S. and Throughout the World

What Is the History of Substance Abuse Rehabilitation?

As drugs have been abused for hundreds of years all over the world, their effects have been felt for just as long. For as long as drugs have been used, there have been those who have abused them. As the physical and mental health implications of addiction became clearer, rehabilitation efforts began to appear. The history of rehabilitation in the United States dates back hundreds of years.

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 take alcoholism and related drug abuse more seriously, more community groups and sober houses began appearing.

Creation of AA

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. Based on the AA format, various other branches formed, such as:

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 a person’s treatment regime will consist of a range of therapies that have been chosen specifically for the individual.

Video: A Round for the House—A History of Drinking in America

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

Historical Background of Drug Abuse

The Continuing Spread of Addictive Substances

Opium eventually made it to China, where members of the population started trading it with 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 travel to 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.

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 did turn out to be very 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 serious social stigma.

Help Is Available

Fortunately, people with addictions can now find the help they need to lead healthy lives. While early 20th-century society saw drug addiction as a moral flaw, it is now regarded by many as a disease or a chronic issue that requires treatment.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, help is available and recovery is possible. Treatment can start anyone battling a drug or alcohol problem on the path to a healthier and happier life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. You can call us on our free hotline at any time, day or night, for helpful advice, information, or admissions. Please get in touch with a caring AAC representative at . There are also free drug abuse hotline numbers you can contact.

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