Nov 4, 2002: What is the history of drugs of abuse?

There have been a number of questions about drugs of abuse.  Therefore, I am going to do a series on drugs of abuse, starting with an overview of the history of drug abuse.

Part I
History offers ample evidence of drug abuse since early times.  Opium use can be traced back to Greece and Cyprus as early as 2000 BC.  Ancient Aztecs used LSD, peyote, and marijuana.  In more recent times, George Washington used marijuana to ease dental pain.  On the advice of Samuel Clemens, Ulysses Grant used cocaine while writing his memoirs.

After the Civil War, opium use was widely tolerated in the US and even recommended to increase intellectual and imaginative faculties.  Opium based concoctions were widely prescribed.  Respectable Victorian ladies calmed their babies with narcotic potions.  At the turn of the century, heroin was sold legally in drugstores, mail order catalogs and traveling salesman.  

Cocaine became popular in the US in the late 19th century (and really was a component of Coca Cola). At this time, 1/400 Americans used opiates regularly.  As drug abuse and addiction increased, the government began to crack down.  US banned the import of opium in 1909.  By the 1920s, public revulsion against drugs bordered on hysteria.

In less than a generation, public attitudes had been transformed.

Next week, Part II  

As always, if there are any questions, call the MTPC.

I am interested in any questions that you would like answered in “Question of the Week.”  Please e-mail me with any suggestions at

Donna Seger, M.D.
Medical Director, Middle Tennessee Poison Center