Historical Druggery

Thursday, February 8, 2007


Written by Bob Przybyla

I know that my mother always references the Vietnam War and the 60’s as when illicit drugs made their way into North America. But as a history student I know that there’s more to it than just US GI’s coming back from Vietnam with a heroin habit. Below I chronicle the historic roots of several popular drug types. I don’t know how surprising all this will be but I figured that I’d offer it anyways.


Cocaine comes from the Coca leaf and was first derived and purified in 1860. When the coca leaf is refined there are numerous alkaloids (naturally occurring, complex organic compounds that contain nitrogen) and Cocaine is one of these alkaloids. All of the refined alkaloids combined are simply called coca. One of the biggest supporters of medicinal cocaine was Sigmund Freud. In Freud’s professional opinion cocaine could cure or help fatigue, nervousness, and minor physical complaints. However, the use of cocaine as a cure–all was short lived. Of greater importance was cocaine’s use as an anesthetic. The first modern surgical anesthetics were regional anesthetics preformed by injecting cocaine solution into nerve roots.

In a 1900 survey 369 of 1200 doctors stated that cocaine was useful in increasing appetite, raising blood pressure, increasing circulation, and was also an aphrodisiac. However, a mere 30 years later, the medicinal use of cocaine was virtually nonexistent and instead there were a limited number of applications for cocaine. At times cocaine is still used as a topical anesthetic for eye, ear, nose and throat surgery.

One popular note on cocaine is its use in Coca-Cola. The name of this drink even incorporates the parent plant, coca. It is true that Coca-Cola at one time used cocaine in the soft drink but there is no longer cocaine in Coca-Cola. In fact, there hasn’t been cocaine in the recipe since 1903 when it was replaced with caffeine. Also, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the use of cocaine in all commercial food and drink products in the US. On the other hand, till this day part of the production of Coca-Cola includes filtration through coca leaves.

Psychedelic Drugs

The first item worth mentioning here is peyote. Peyote is a type of cactus that grows principally in the American South West and Northern Mexico. This plant contains several alkaloids including the mescaline, which has a similar chemical structure to MDMA or ecstasy/extasy. The peyote cactus is dried and then chewed or soaked in water to make peyote tea. The result is hallucinations and an altered state of consciousness. The trip lasts from 10-12 hours. Peyote is illegal in the United States and internationally; that is, unless you’re a member of an indigenous community and use peyote for religious purposes. The use of peyote by native people was documented at the first European contact.

LSD is a synthetic psychedelic drug also known as acid. LSD is refined from lysergic acid, which comes from ergot, a type of grain fungus that principally attacks rye. A recent investigation has pointed to ergot as the reason for the strange behavior, visions, and physical symptoms associated not only with the Salem witch trials but many incidences of witchcraft in Europe and North America. LSD was first derived in 1938 and its psychoactive properties were discovered in 1943. So for about five years, all the things for which LSD is now known for were completely unknown to developers, scientists, and researchers. There are two interesting things about LSD, historically speaking:
First, LSD was used for therapeutic purposes and seemed to be quite effective. However, the extra-medical uses of this drug left it with a less than reputable reputation. The result is that in the 70’s LSD was banned for personal use as well as medical research. There are still medical and scientific organizations that wish to continue research upon LSD's medicinal properties.

Second, LSD was used in tests by the British spy agency MI5 and the American CIA. In both cases, the military sought to see if LSD could be used as a mind control solution. In both sets of tests, the subjects were not informed as to what they were really being tested for. In Britain, the soldiers/test subjects were told that they were testing a drug that was supposed to cure "the common cold." In both cases, the respective military testers found that LSD had little potential as a mind-control drug.


Morphine has an interesting history. It was first isolated in 1804 from opium by Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner. He named the new drug morphium after the Greek God Morpheus, the god of dreams. However, its usefulness was minimal until the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853. Morphine was prescribed regularly through out the second half of the 19th century. However, little was known at the time about the actual function of drugs like morphine and cocaine. In the case of morphine, it was known that an injection would temporarily stop pain but it was used indiscriminately. In cases of chronic pain injuries often little to nothing was done to treat the actual problem (because medical understanding and practice was quite limited) and instead the symptom of pain was treated with regular morphine injection.

This practice invariably led to extensive addiction. It is often assumed that the centers of addiction would be in the cities, but addiction was common in rural areas as well. The 1905 Sears Roebuck catalogue (which catered to the rural farmer and village dweller) had cure-all treatments for morphine addiction. According to various studies it appears that morphine addiction was a national phenomenon in the United States. According to an 1877 Michigan study, there were 1300 morphine addicts outside the major cities of Michigan. If this data were indicative of the entire country, there would have been over 250,000 rural morphine addicts in the nation out of 40 million. The number then would have jumped to 780,000 total cases in 1913 over one million in 1918.

As you can see, what are now illicit drugs have long held a place in North American history. The means of delivery have changed, the economic model of drug distribution has changed and more than likely the reasons behind addiction have changed, but the use and abuse of psychoactive drugs have long existed on the continent. Its easy to think that drug abuse is a product of these modern and "morally absent" times. But it's just the continuation of long standing traditions.


1. Medical Uses of Illicit Drugs by Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar

2. The Good Old Days: A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen through the Sears, Roebuck Catalogs 1905 to the Present
Book by David L. Cohn; Simon & Schuster, 1940

3. Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology
Book by Jordan Goodman, Paul E. Lovejoy, Andrew Sherratt; Routledge, 1995

4. Drugs and Drug Policy in America: A Documentary History
Book by Steven R. Belenko; Greenwood Press, 2000

5. Wikipedia.org

Keep an eye open for the Peak's Drug issue coming soon to campus newsstands. Submission deadline for the Arts & Culture issue is March 5th.

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