Drug addiction continues to be rampant in many parts of the world.  In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) fights the battle on many fronts.  Many people believe drugs were not a problem until the 1960s when “hippies” espoused “free love,” while smoking marijuana (pot), heroin addicts crowded the back alleyways and rock and roll bands displayed antics while under the influence of a variety of narcotics.  The abusive use of drugs didn’t start in the 1960s or even the 50s or 40s. 

Laudanum: photo by CydoneCredit: photo by CydoneDrug of the Old West

The most prominent drug available for the average westerner and even the eastern fancy was laudanum, also called Tincture of Opium.[1]   Laudanum as used in the old west was a mixture of 10% opium and 90% alcohol; quite the combination of mind altering substances.[1]   It was sold over the counter for anything from a headache or cough to a pain reliever for serious injuries.   Women used it for menstrual cramps.

Laudanum had been around long before the wild west of the United States.   As early as the 16th century a Swiss-German alchemist discovered opium alkaloids were more soluble in alcohol than water. Paracelsus concocted a mixture of opium and alcohol that would reduce pain and called the mixture laudanum.[1]  His mixture not only contained opium and alcohol, he added crushed pearls, amber, musk and other substances.  In 1618 a laudanum pill was listed with the ingredients of opium, saffron, castor, ambergris, musk and nutmeg.[1]

Laudanum contained almost all of the opium alkaloids, including codeine and morphine. Because of its high concentration of morphine, the drug Tincture of Opium’s principal use was as a pain killer and cough suppressant.   By the 1800s, laudanum was used in many patented medicines for just about any illness or ailment a person had.[1]  It was used by adults and also given to children.  Even infants were spoon-fed the drug.  During the VictoLaudanum/Opium Tincture: photo by user: Djm55Credit: photo by user: Djm55rian and Romantic periods in history (1857-1901; 1850-1920 respectively) laudanum was widely used in both Europe and the United States.[1]  Initially, the drug was cheaper than a bottle of wine or gin and thus popular with the working class.  It is reported Mary Elizabeth Todd, wife of President Abraham Lincoln, was addicted to laudanum.[1]

The early 1900s brought an increase in the awareness of the addictive nature of opium and with it, more regulation of narcotics. Though laudanum was still available over the counter; certain specified drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and cannabis, required accurate labeling with contents and dosage.  By 1914 it was estimated one out of every 400 U.S. citizens was addicted to some form of opium.[1]  The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum, and coca derivatives in the United States.

By the mid-1900s opium was no longer considered a “cure-all.”  Pharmaceutical companies began to synthesize various opioids which along with morphine and codeine were preferable to laudanum.  The synthesized versions, such as oxycodone, were a single opioid and could reduce pain without the cocktail of opiates found in laudanum; thus, rendering the old drug almost obsolete.   In 1970 the U.S. regulated the drug still further and by the late 1900s, laudanum was almost exclusively used for treating severe diarrhea.  Currently it is also occasionally prescribed for pain reduction and withdrawal in infants.

Opium Smoking:  Photographer unknownCredit: Photographer unknownOpium Dens

Opium dens were establishments where opium was sold and smoked.   The opium den is associated with the Chinese as they usually ran the dens and supplied the opium as well as prepared it for non-Chinese patrons.[9]  As the patrons reclined, they held long opium pipes over oil lamps to heat the drug until it vaporized, then inhaled the vapors.

The California Gold Rush brought a huge influx of Chinese to San Francisco where the city’s Chinatown became the hub of numerous opium dens not long after their arrival around 1850. By the 1870s, non-Chinese were frequenting the dens and the city acknowledged the ensuing problem of addiction to the drug.[8]  In 1878 the city passed anti-opium ordinance, but the campaign merely drove the practice underground.  The dens were hidden in basements under Chinese-run laundry stores or similar establishments; sealed tightly to keep out drafts and keep in the pungent fumes.

While New York’s Chinatown had opium dens as well; none were as opulent as the ones in San Francisco.  Like San Francisco, patrons of the New York dens were of all nationalities.  The last opium den in New York City was raided and shut down in June, 1957.[9]

Pre-war Bayer Heroin Bottle:  Photo courtesy of Mpv_51 at English WikipediaCredit: Photo courtesy of Mpv_51 at English WikipediaThe use of Heroin

Morphine was widely used by doctors to treat their patients for pain.  Until the Civil War the addictive properties were not as widely known.  A large number of Civil War veterans became addicted to morphine after being treated for their injuries and doctors of the time didn’t really know how to treat the addiction.   In 1874 Germany developed the drug they called heroin after its German trademarked name.[5]  Shortly after, it was imported to the U.S. and marketed as a “safe, non-addictive” substitute for morphine. 

By the turn of the century, reputable drug companies began to Heroin Powder:  photo courtesy of the DEACredit: photo courtesy of the DEAmanufacture over-the-counter (OTC) drug kits which contained a hypodermic needle, and vials of opiates, either morphine or heroin,  and/or packages of cocaine.[5]  Heroin as with the other opiates and opiate derivatives continued to be sold OTC until regulations were implemented restricting the drugs in 1906 and further restrictions in 1914 and 1970.  However, by 1925 there were already an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in the United States.[5]

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Peyote Cactus:  Photo courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife ServiceCredit: Photo courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife ServicePeyote

The use of peyote in the U.S. is currently restricted to Native America tribes.  Peyote is a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, in particular mescaline.   Peyote is reported to trigger states of deep introspection and insight.  Native Americans have used peyote for thousands of years as part of their spiritual ceremonies as well as for medicinal purposes such as toothaches, fever, colds and a host of other ailments and maladies.  It is likely cowboys and pioneers of the old west used peyote from time to time but there are not many Peyote Buttons:  photo courtesy of the DEACredit: photo courtesy of the DEArecords regarding this issue.

Peyote is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA.  Although the U.S. government attempted to curb the use of peyote, in 1978 under the Indian Religious Freedom Act, use by the Native American Church for religious purposes is allowed without recrimination.   On application forms for the armed services, Native Americans who have or do use peyote and no other illegal narcotics are allowed to answer “no” to the question “Have you ever used illegal drugs?” [10]

Marijuana: photo courtesy of the DEACredit: photo courtesy of the DEAMarijuana

Marijuana, commonly called “pot” among other things, comes from the hemp plant and is used in various forms as a psychoactive drug.  The principal psychoactive compound of cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); one of 483 known compounds in the plant, including at least 84 other cannabinoids.[2]  Since 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I drug.   While it is illegal according to federal government; states have created their own laws to allow the use for medicinal purposes in some states and Colorado and Washington, have legalized it entirely.  It’s been a long road.

The colonists at Jamestown were ordered to grow hemp for England to satisfy their demand or Marijuana Plants: photographer unknownCredit: photographer unknownrope.[2]  As the New England colonies progressed and developed a shipping industry of their own, growing hemp was even more important.  In the Colonial days, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and during the Revolutionary War, hemp was used for some of the clothing worn by the soldiers.  In 1815 Jefferson invented a device for processing hemp.

Moving into the 20th century, smoking marijuana wasn’t too prominent in the U.S.  That changed in the 1890s when the first English-language newspaper opened in Mexico.  Tales of pot-induced violence began to show up in print in the U.S. and by 1910 when Immigrants started moving from Mexico to the U.S., many papers announced the evils of pot-smoking.[2]

Throughout the 1920s smoking pot became increasing popular, especially among jazz musicians.  Louis Armstrong was known to defend the drug and in 1930 was arrested and given a six-month suspended sentence for possession.[2]  The repeal of the alcohol prohibition in 1933 was followed by the head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, to focus his attention on pot.  In 1936 the movie Reefer Madness was released depicting young adults falling into violence and insanity after smoking pot.  The movie made little impact at the time, but in the 1970s had a rebirth with those in favor of the plant.[2]

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Marijuana was banned by Congress in 1937 with the Marijuana Act of 1937.  Throughout the 1940s and well into the 50s Anslinger continued to attack the use of pot.  He tried to get jazz musicians to inform on each other with little success.  In contrast, during the 40s, the Department of Agriculture promoted the growing of hemp to provide rope products for the military during the war.[2]

After the war, pot grew in popularity among musicians and actors and Anslinger began to tout the theory of marijuana as the “gateway drug.”  He claimed those who started smoking pot would eventually lead to other drugs, specifically to heroin.[2]  The Vietnam War hit and with it came the counterculture of hippies and protestors smoking out in the open.  By the mid-1970s, states were already considering decimalizing marijuana with more relaxed state laws concerning possession of pot.

Drug Addiction Today

Drug addiction today is costly.   According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug addiction cost the nation $11 billion in healthcare cost and when costs related to crime and lost work productivity was taken into account, the cost rose to a whopping $193 billion in 2010.                                                                                                                      

New drugs make their way onto the streets and on the school campuses; yet in 2010 the most commonly abused drug other than alcohol, by those over the age of twelve was marijuana.  This was followed by painkillers, cocaine, and hallucinogens.  Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people who took prescription drugs illegally rose by 500 percent.   In 2010 statistics, Baltimore, Maryland was identified as the state with more per capita individuals living with heroin addiction than any other state. [7]


The copyright of the article Addiction to Narcotics not a new Thing is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.