The History of Drug Abuse and Addiction in America and the Origins of Drug Treatment part 2

In the last article we looked at the history and rapid growth of opiate use in America, which had become a serious public health issue by the late 19th century. Opiates certainly played, and still play, a major role in the development of the urge in society to use drugs to solve one’s problems, which “solution” has helped create a drug abuse and addiction epidemic and, ultimately, the need for drug treatment in America.

Besides opium, morphine and heroin, there were cocaine-based drugs that added profits to the patent medicine industry and increased drug abuse and addiction in the country. Chewing coca leaves produces a mild stimulant effect and had been used by cultures in the Andes for over a thousand years, helping among other things to acclimate the human body to high altitudes, but it had never become popular in the United States or Europe. In 1860 “cocaine” was isolated in pure form, but there isn’t any significant report of its use until 1883 when Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt, a German military physician, secured a stable supply and issued it to the Bavarian soldier during maneuvers, noting the beneficial effect of suppressing fatigue.

Aschendrandt’s writings on cocaine caught the fascination of a young Viennese neurologist, Sigmund Freud, who was suffering from chronic fatigue, depression and various neurotic symptoms. Freud tried the drug as well as giving it to a colleague who was suffering from a nervous disease and from morphine addiction and also to a patient with gastric disorders. Freud found the initial results to be favorable and wrote that cocaine was a “magical drug”. In 1884, Freud wrote to his fiancée about his experiences with cocaine:

“If all goes well, I will write an essay on it, and I expect it will win its place in therapeutics by the side of morphine and superior to it. I have other hopes and intentions about it. I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success…. In short it is only now that I feel that I am a doctor, since I have helped one patient and hope to help more.”1 1

After pushing the drug on more patients and colleagues, Freud gathered a following of believers, but within a few years, there were an increasing number of reports of compulsive use, drug abuse, addiction and undesirable side effects to the cocaine.

When this information hit the patent medicine industry in the United States, the benefits of the unregulated drug cocaine quickly became a major ingredient in most over-the-counter medications. Cocaine became the next “magical drug.” (You will remember that “heroin” was the other.) Cocaine was touted for treating everything from alcoholism and alcohol abuse to venereal disease, but mainly as a cure for addiction to other patent medicines (often opiate addiction.) Since cocaine produces a temporary level of euphoria, the patent medicine industry experienced a golden age of popularity. Once the patent medicine industry was closed due to legislation restricting drugs of pleasure, cocaine didn’t have much further effect in America until the second half of the twentieth century when drug abuse and addiction was becoming a major treatment issue in the country.

By the 1930’s heroin was the drug most Americans focused on as being a taboo, but marijuana was about to share that distinction. Marijuana was being labeled the “devil drug,’ the ‘assassin of youth,’ and the ‘weed of madness.’

To the surprise of many, marijuana’s history shows it as being cultivated and used by America’s early colonists. Marijuana was introduced in 1629 to the Puritan colonies of New England. By 1765 George Washington was cultivating marijuana at Mount Vernon, allegedly to help with the agony of an aching tooth. After that reference, marijuana was overshadowed by opiates and other more powerful drugs that were commonly dispensed in patent medicines, but is found as cannabis and hashish during the nineteenth century.

Just like all of the other drugs introduced into American culture, marijuana was seen as having potential profits for the pharmaceutical industry and was promoted by the patent medicine industry as a cure for depression, convulsions, hysteria, insanity, mental retardation and impotence. During the 1800’s, well-known pharmaceutical companies like Parke-Davis and Squibb produced tincture of cannabis for the family pharmacist to dispense. As a medicine, it was never very popular, mostly because of the problems in trying to find exact doses and potency, but as a recreational drug, marijuana had its devotees. By 1885, every major American city had its clandestine hashish clubs catering to well-to-do clientele.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, marijuana was being connected to racial groups and drug abusers. Drug abuse of and addiction to marijuana wasn’t actually being looked for in these early days, but special interests wanted to stigmatize marijuana in order to keep it from interfering with more profitable and more addictive drugs like the opiates.

The establishment feared marijuana because of it foreign origins and promoted it to be classified as a narcotic and placed in a line of dangerous drugs with opium and coca products. Propaganda spread about marijuana being a serious drug of abuse and addiction, and there were lurid tales of it driving users to extreme criminal behavior and wrecking perfect middle class families. During this period before the Second World War, marijuana literature made the terms ‘drug abuse’ and ‘addiction’ part of marijuana folklore.

Our next article will examine the post-war heroin problem and LSD. It is increasingly seen that the history of drugs in America is closely attached to the profits of the pharmaceutical companies and is not a phenomena that organically originated with the people. Drug abuse and addiction have had strong corporate support, which was not forwarded in equal measure to provide for drug treatment for the addictions caused.

Article 1Article 3

Feel free to browse through this series of articles to learn the history of drugs and treatment in America.

Department of Drug Education, Prevention, and Information
Narconon International

Reference: Handbook of Drug Control In the United States by James A. Inciardi. Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.

1. Ernest Jones, The life and work of Sigmund Freud, vol. 1 (New York: Basic Books, 1953), 81; Freud’s paper “Uber Coca” (On Coca) as been reprinted in cocaine papers by Sigmund Freud, ed. Robert Byck (New York: New American Library, 1975), 49-73.

Narconon International provides more drug information

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