A Problem as Old as the Nation – A History of American Substance Abuse

By Jenni Heseldine

Drugs, drug addicts, and what the state should do about the problem is a controversial issue even today. Many people feel indignant about the spending of taxpayer’s dollars upon people who – as they see it – deliberately induced their need for such bailouts. This is not a new issue. It has simmered in the background ever since substance abuse was first recognized as a problem. A short look at the history of drug abuse in America and the growth of social problems and solutions around it may, however, provide a sense of context through which the problems may be seen more clearly. In the past, a great many mistakes were made in the manufacture of both drugs and supposed ‘cures’ for addiction – mistakes we would do well to learn from today.

Jamestown Tobacco

Interestingly, an addictive substance directly influenced the foundation and success of one of the USA’s earliest European settlements. The husband of the famed Pocahontas – John Rolfe – came from England to Virginia with the mission of bringing a profitable business out of the new world’s soils. He hit on the idea of cultivating a tobacco plantation – despite James I’s recently published angry polemic against tobacco (the ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’), during which the smoking is decried as (amongst other, much ruder things) a ‘vile custome’. Rolfe was enormously successful, and his tobacco plantation has been described as “The first great American enterprise”. Unfortunately, his great American enterprise also brought about one of the first great American social ills. In 1619, “20 and Odd blacks” were shipped into Jamestown from a Dutch man’o’war, and sold to slavery in the tobacco fields. Right from the get-go, the drug business was setting the nation up for some fairly major social problems.

‘The Soldier’s Disease’

It would take a long time, however, for drugs to be recognized as a serious problem. Although the English crown periodically made dire proclamations about the social ills wrought by tobacco, the tobacco industry continued to boom. Its success did not go unnoticed, and many sought to replicate the results. Opiates and alkaloids were tried, refined, added to, and served up to an eager public in attractively marketed packaging. It quickly became very clear to canny businessmen that certain substances could gain you customers for life. In all fairness to these early drug dealers, they often did not realize just how bad the effects of addiction could be. Indeed, concoctions like laudanum were frequently marketed as a kind of panacea, freely sold in pharmacies as a recommended cure for everything from headaches to gangrene. As the Addiction Research Unit at the University of Buffalo point out, “Morphine, cocaine, and even heroin were seen as miracle cures when they were first discovered…many manufacturers proudly proclaimed that their products contained cocaine or opium.” However, the negative side effects of these supposed ‘miracle drugs’ were becoming painfully clear by the time of the Civil War. This saw thousands of soldiers left with opiate addictions due to the opium pills and morphine handed out indiscriminately as a form of pain relief and to settle the nerves. So common was opium addiction in Civil War veterans that it became known as the ‘Soldier’s Disease’.

The Cocaine Cure

One man who suffered from the ‘soldier’s disease’ was John Pemberton, the founder of the Coca-Cola company. Pemberton, a pharmacist, was in his way an early pioneer of addiction treatment – he began experimenting with the recipes which would become coca-cola in his search for something which would help to cure his addiction. Unfortunately, the ‘cure’ he hit on was a beverage containing the coca leaf, from which cocaine is derived. Modern coca-cola does not, of course, have any cocaine at all in it, but in its early days it was considered an excellent medicine for the opiate addict – and came as a great relief for a government beginning to experience pressure to do something about the ‘soldier’s disease’.  However, replacing one addictive substance with another in an uncontrolled manner was never going to work. This swiftly became devastatingly clear. In the mid nineteenth century, Oregon took the initiative to halt the cocaine addiction epidemic then raging by banning the sale of un-prescribed cocaine. Other states followed suit in a steady stream, but any such legislation was at the time controversial, and subject to plentiful rhetoric regarding the curtailing of individual liberties. Meanwhile, other problematic substances were being innocently formulated for medical and military purposes. Heroin, for example, was being synthesized, and sold over the counter as a cough syrup by German company Bayer even as America furiously debated the pros and cons of banning cocaine.

Several Wrong Turns

The development of drugs which have the potential to be misused and become a problem remains a pertinent one today, but early attempts to both harness and combat the psychoactive and addictive properties of certain substances took a few spectacular wrong turns. Research and experimentation would both increase the world’s store of knowledge regarding such things and open the floodgates to a whole new host of drug cultures. Treatment4addiction.com point out that during WW2, “the Office of Strategic Services used cannabis as a truth serum” and therapeutic substance for, among other things, heroin addicts. It continued to be used as such well into the 1940s before being rather hurriedly banned. A similar story occurred with amphetamines which were initially hailed as a fabulous cure for cocaine. In fact, the cocaine market did indeed bottom out with the arrival of amphetamines, as they were “inexpensive, readily available, had long-lasting effects, and…professionals purported that amphetamine did not pose an addiction risk.” The cocaine market recovered, of course, once it was discovered that this was not the case and amphetamines, too, joined the ranks of banned substances.

Poor Treatment

All this time, worried families had been shelling out thousands of dollars to get their loved ones off the substances. In the early days, substance treatment centers and the standard of care within depended largely upon the depth of your wallet. The rich could afford to go to luxury retreats and spas, during which they’d experience care and comfort. Others were not so lucky. The problem was that addiction was seen as a moral rather than a physical problem, and the physical aspects of withdrawal were dismissed rather curtly as bodily evidence of spiritual deficiency. Any opium addict who began shaking uncontrollably would be given ‘something to shiver about’ through the application of freezing water. Those who could not afford even this treatment experienced their best chance of getting clean within the drunk tanks into which they would periodically be thrown for antisocial behavior – however, they would only be kept there until the immediate effects of whatever they had taken wore off. Drugs were rife and unregulated in prisons, and many who had been mentally affected by their habit were sent to mental institutions. These, if one lacked wealthy relatives, were spartan and frequently cruel places in which the inmates would often be given drugs like laudanum and morphine to keep them calm. It was not until the 1960s that serious research was done into the concept of addiction as a disease, and states began to cautiously develop civil treatment programs with a medical rather than a spiritual basis for narcotic abusers.

Slow Progress

Of course, the work is not yet complete. Drug addiction treatment remains a difficult process, and an imperfect one, too. Furthermore, the issues pertaining to drug users and the welfare to which they may or may not be entitled retains in many ways much of the old ‘moral rather than medical problem’ aspects of the past. Kimberly Yee, an Arizona State Representative, argues that drug testing should be mandatory for those wishing to receive welfare, and that welfare should be withheld if the test fails. Her case, as she puts it, is simple: “It is fiscally irresponsible for public monies to subsidize the use of illegal drugs”. Others argue fiercely against Yee’s viewpoint, pointing out that such initiatives have proven spectacularly unsuccessful in the past and, furthermore, that withholding any form of aid to drug addicts may well prove detrimental to society as a whole. How? By alienating drug users from the system, thus bringing about a social disconnect which may potentially inspire anti-social behavior in unstable individuals. There still, also, seems to be a distinct rich/poor divide when it comes to ideas about addicts. Cocaine-snorting bankers seeking million-dollar government bailouts for their failing fiscal enterprises, for example, were never asked to pee into a pot before signing on the dotted line. In many ways, our society still suffers from the old mindset which saw those who could afford it sent to high-end ‘therapeutic’ establishments while others rotted in drunk tanks and mental institutions. However, there has been progress. We now understand much more about addiction, and are able to relatively swiftly assess the addictive or otherwise properties of a new substance – which should hopefully ensure that any new initiative to stamp out addiction to a certain drug will not merely be replacing one demon with another.


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