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History Of Prescription Drug Abuse

Updated on July 28, 2016
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Earliest Use And Abuse

Through the ages the world has enjoyed the euphoria of opioids. From opium’s humble beginnings in Mesopotamia to the current billion dollar industry of Oxycontin, opioids have traversed the globe and lured individuals from every class of peoples into its inviting but dangerously addictive snare.

Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum- botanical name for the plant) was first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia around 3400. It was discovered that the seedpods of the poppy flower contained exudates from which opium could be derived. Much to the delight of some Sumerians, Assyrians Babylonians and Egyptians, the exudates were found to create pleasurable effects when smoked. In fact, the Sumerians called the poppy plant, the “joy plant” (Hul Gil). The practice of extracting opium spread to China, India and Arabia.

In the sixteenth century, laudanum, also known as Tincture of Opium, was invented by Phillup von Hopenhiem. The drink is an opium alcohol drink where the opium is extracted into brandy. Opium is more soluble in alcohol than in water, making the drink very potent and hence, very popular. In the nineteenth century the English citizen could easily purchase laudanum or raw opium in any English pharmacy. ( Laudanum is available today by prescription, but is primarily used for diarrhea and pain.)

Opiates In America
Opiates In America

Opiates In America

America didn’t really know opiate abuse and subsequent addiction until the 19th century. It has been estimated that there were over 200,000 opiate addicts in this country at any given time during that century. The opiate drugs came in different forms and from different venues as they flowed into many sectors of society.

In 1805 Wilheml Serurner, isolated morphine from opium and named his new product, mophium, after Morpheus, the Greek God of dreams. Morphine was embraced by the medical community because it was more easily digested than opium, which had unpleasant gastric side-effects. The hypodermic needle syringe was invented later in the 19th century and injection of morphine became popular with the upper class of America and England. Morphine was promoted as being less addictive than opium. Bored, with plenty of resources at their disposal, women of means in the late 1800s were often found to be fashionable morphine users. Morphine was used for menstrual cramps, headaches, or just general malaise. It was soon discovered that morphine was indeed addictive and had the same withdrawal symptoms as opium, which included malaise, flu-like symptoms and depression. For some women, use turned to abuse and addiction and no matter their class, the withdrawal was not too sophisticated.

When the immigrant Chinese workers arrived to the states in the mid-1800s, they brought their opium. Opium became popular with Americans out West and opium dens started popping up, replete with oriental prostitutes. While American movies show the tough and tumble cowboys having a row in the local saloon, many cowboys were in opium dens for days at a time, in a dreamy spaced out state eventually stumbling out to get back to work.

Civil War Opiate Abuse

During the Civil war, so many opium pills were distributed to suffering soldiers, that opiate abuse came to be called “The War Disease.” The Union doctors distributed 2.8 million ounces of opium preparations to solders, many of whom continued to use it after the war for constant pain from war injuries.

Opiate products could be bought easily from a Sears catalog or the local drug store and were used to treat everything from diarrhea to malaria.

In the same century while many Americans let their worries waft away in an opium cloud, the aggressive Opium Wars raged between China and the British Empire on the other side of the world. The British East India Company, not unlike modern drug cartels determined that the best way to balance a trade deficit between the two countries was to sell opium. Merchants from the United States and England sold Chinese opium to Chinese smugglers. When the emperor demanded that this practice stop, officials in the Chinese court suggested that opium be legalized so the country could collect taxes on it. Instead, the Emperor forced the destruction of the opium and the English retaliated by sending forces into the Chinese coastal area, forcing terms of settlement. As it is today, drug money was more precious to some than human life and the quality thereof.

Society was experiencing the violence, illness and ill-behavior that accompanies addiction, but was unwilling to give up the opiate euphoria. A non- addictive solution was desired. Sigmund Freud suggested that the best cure for opiate addiction was cocaine while Bayer aspirin came up with a substitute opiate and named it heroin.

In 1874 German scientists developed heroin – a formula that they thought was less addictive than morphine. The head of Bayer aspirin, Heinrich Dreser tested the new formula on animals, humans and himself. Perhaps it was self- experimentation that contributed to misinterpretation of clinical results. He liked the formula and thought it appropriate for many ailments, including respiratory difficulties. If Dreser or Bayer aspirin scientists suspected that their formula was addictive, they weren’t saying. They started passing out samples to doctors, who passed them on to their patients. The drug quickly became popular and in fact a bit too popular. Doctors started noticing that they were getting quite a few requests from their patients for heroin. As it turns out, heroin was more addictive than morphine. Bayer aspirin made a profit from their heroin for a few years and then stopped making it in 1913. Congress outlawed the sale, importation and manufacturing of heroin in 1924.

Opiate abuse subsided for a while in this country.


The Rise Of Big Pharma

In 1999 Purdue pharmaceutical was awarded a patent for their creation - the opiate Oxycontin. In an eerily similar method as was used by Bayer aspirin at the beginning of the 20th century, Purdue pushed the fact that their productive was non-addictive and sent out sales people to hand out their samples and false advertisement to every doctor in town. Only after a few people died, many got addicted and Purdue was criminally charged did Purdue pull the Bayer aspirin “oops – we made a mistake”. However, unlike Bayer, they didn’t stop producing their mistake, but continue to sell it to the tune of one billion dollars a year.

They say history repeats itself and in the case of these two opiates, it certainly did up to a certain point. However where the similarities end, the profits and attendant miseries continue with Oxycotin.

Perhaps too many have imbibed in this product to be as smart as Bayer aspirin and our legislatures were in the 20th century.

Only the future will tell.


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