The country’s current outbreak of opioid addiction has roots in early American history. In fact, opiates became a regular part of the American experience in the mid 1850’s and continued into the early 1900’s. Read below to learn more about America’s long history with opioids.
The History of Opioids in America
1. Papaver somniferum is the scientific name for the plant that produces opium poppy, from which morphine, codeine, and other natural opiates are produced.
2. The Sumerians called the opium poppy “the joy plant” as early as 3000 B.C. It is the same plant that covered the field in which Dorothy and friends fell asleep as they approached the Wizard of Oz.
3. In 1620, the famous physician Samuel Fuller carried aboard the Mayflower an early form of laudanum, which was a mixture of opium and alcohol.
4. Laudanum was originally created by Paracelsus and was used by early American settlers struggling with diseases such as smallpox and cholera. Laudanum can effectively help manage pain and can be used as an anti-diarrheal.
5. Thomas Jefferson commonly used laudanum to help manage his chronic diarrhea, a condition that contributed to his death. While still alive, Jefferson wrote to a friend, “with care and laudanum I may consider myself in what is to be my habitual state.” Jefferson came to rely upon laudanum and even grew poppies on his estate.
6. It wasn’t long before opiate use became more and more common not only to help manage pain but also as a recreational drug. By the middle of the 1800’s, recreational use became quite popular.
7. Eventually, opiates became used in many household products, including teething powders, over the counter pain medication, and even a baby’s soothing syrup to help calm fuzzy infants.
8. Many American companies had patented “secret” ingredients in their products, which often contained opiates, and in some cases, alcohol too. These products were legitimately used to alleviate peoples’ pain while other times consumers used these products to get high.
9. After the American civil war, over the counter drugs became increasingly strong and makers began adding opioids such as heroin and stimulants including cocaine. For instance, Bayer introduced to the market a pain reliever which included heroin.
10. Other products, such as soft drinks, included opiates and were a great success around the turn of the century.
11. Finally, in 1906, under Theodore Roosevelt, the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required that any ingredients too dangerous or harmful in anyway be listed on the label of products.
12. Three years later, the first federal law which banned the non-medical use of a substance was passed. The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act banned the importation, possession, and use of opium. However, this law did not regulate the use of opium in products.
13. Another law was passed in 1914 which required there be a federal registry of those who produce, import, manufacture, deal, and distribute opium of any kind. The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 also imposed taxes on those engaged in any of these activities.
14. In 1919, the Supreme Court made changes to the Harrison Narcotics Act, limiting the ability of doctors to prescribe opiates to those who struggling with a dependency. These federal changes did not prohibit doctors in assisting someone to wean off the drug but it was the opinion of the court that such assistance was not considered professional practice.
15. In 1919, the 18th Amendment banned the use of alcohol, which in turn led to an increase in using drugs, such as opiates, recreationally.
16. In 1922, the Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act was passed, which attempted to control the importation, sale, and possession of any narcotics. Just two years later, heroin was made illegal even for medicinal use.
17. In 1933, prohibition of alcohol was overturned, making drinking a socially acceptable experience, and as a result, anyone using opiates recreationally was easily marginalized.
18. When the Second World War ended, semi-synthetic, manmade opioids began to enter the market. Drugs such as hydromorphone, hydrocodone (Vicodin), and oxycodone (the prescription drug OxyContin) became available for doctors to prescribe. However, many doctors knew the risks of the drugs for their patients and shied away from prescribing them.
19. As America entered the 1960’s, recreational drug use increased significantly, including the use of natural and synthetic opioids. Eventually, this led to the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which was a consolidation of many laws which attempted to control the manufacture, possession, and use of a variety of drugs, including opioids.
20. Three years later, the federal government established the Drug Enforcement Agency which was another attempt to limit access to powerful opioids.
21. Around this same time, especially as more opioids became available for doctors to prescribe, more and more physicians were buying the idea that painkillers worked. As a result, prescriptions for pain medication increased. This was also fueled by pharmaceutical companies who communicated to doctors that they were under-prescribing pain medications.
22. The boom in prescribing pain medication has continued to grow. In fact, in a New Yorker article, the author highlights that by 2010, America was consuming 99% of the world’s hydrocodone despite the fact that America has only 5% of the world’s population.
23. Since 1999, America has been in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Thousands of people struggle with a dependency to opioids and many eventually die from overdoses. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in Americans under 50 years old. This epidemic has the historically highest opioid death rate, killing on average 10.3 people per 100,000.
24. Today, 91 Americans will die from an opioid overdose.
There is Treatment Available
If you are one of the thousands of Americans struggling with a dependency to opioids, there are treatment options available that can help you with living a healthy life opioid-free. If you’re concerned about how to manage a long-term pain condition, there are many alternatives to managing pain that don’t require the use of opioids. Little by little, America can slowly get out of this epidemic, one person at a time.