A History of Prescription Drug Abuse in the US

A history of prescription drug abuse in the US – Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, could have been known as a popular dry-roasted ingredient in curry. It could have been known as a hardy, vivid garden ornament. Instead, the blood-red flower is known as the base for morphine, heroine, codeine and methadone, the foundation of many prescription drugs.  Now, prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in the United States.

“Prescription drugs” is an umbrella term for the following classes:

  • Painkillers: Morphine was first extracted from dried poppy straw. Once society realized how addictive morphine was, scientists set about finding a less addictive opioid – and in the process created heroine, codeine and methadone.
  • Central nervous system depressants: CNS depressants masquerade as barbiturates, benzodiazepines (Valium) and non- benzodiazepines (Ambient). All are commonly used to treat anxiety, paranoia and sleeping disorders. When combined with alcohol, CNS depressants may cause seizures and/or death.
  • Stimulants: So called “smart drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall are offhandedly used to treat ADHD and also abused by Greek college students, professional athletes and overworked professionals.

Ancient Medicines Go Awry

Most illicit drugs were originally used as medicines. Ancient Incas chewed coca leaves, the source of cocaine, to counteract the effects of low-pressure mountain air. Methamphetamine was synthesized to treat asthma and sinus problems. Merck designed MDMA. Chinese physicians used cannabis, the base of marijuana, to treat everything from hemorrhages and rheumatism. Yet history proves that where medicines spread, drugs soon follow.

The Industrial Revolution Spawns Mass Drug Production

The 19st century arrived with soot and cogs and Parliament and schooners. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, chemists first extracted the potent chemicals from coca leaves, cannabis and opium poppies. Combined with the advent of the automobile and the explosion of the Western hemisphere, the chemical revolution allowed prescription drugs to finally step into the spotlight.
Morphine Visits Veterans from the 19th Century

During America’s youth, prescription drug abuse hid behind the curtain. Morphine use during the Civil War, liberally prescribed for battlefield amputations, spawned tens of thousands of addicts. In the 1890s, Sears & Roebuck sold a cocaine vial with syringe for $1.50. Laudanum, a bitter alcoholic opioid liquid, was often used as an analgesic to allay irritation and as an anti-diarrhea treatment to thwart the symptoms of cholera. Overly enthusiastic physicians dished out laudanum for everything from tuberculosis to rheumatism to yellow fever to coughing.

Along with thousands of eastern European immigrants, more prescription drugs washed up on American shores in the beginning the 1900s. Stores sold over-the-counter kits of heroin, amphetamines and cocaine.
Soldiers Pop Pills During the World Wars

World War I introduced prescription drugs on a grander scale. Germany, the country that synthesized so many medicines, soon saw 1 out of every 100 physicians addicted to morphine. Japan soon festered with methamphetamine addicts. Opium continued to flourish in China, its hometown. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, restricting the manufacturing and distribution of heroin, morphine and other substances.

Yet with World War I, Prohibition and the Great Depression coming in quick succession, America had no time to deal with its flourishing drug problem. During World War II, pilots used “speed” amphetamines to stay awake during long flights. Both the Axis and Ally powers partook. Nazi Germany even created the experimental D-IX drug, a mixture of cocaine, oxycodone and methamphetamine, trying to create a legion of Aryan super soldiers.

The 1960s Unleash a Legacy

Drug abuse of all types exploded in the 1960s. As kids tuned in, turned on and dropped out, over one million pounds of barbiturates were produced annually, enough to kill every American citizen twice.
Prescription Drug Abuse in the Modern United States

Today, pain relievers are by far the most commonly abused prescription drug, followed by CNS depressants. Stimulants make up a smaller minority. However, a handful of prescription drugs – Vicodin, OxyContin and Adderall – make up the lion’s share of abused substances. Many of these substances were synthesized in the 1990s.

America consumes 80 percent of the world’s painkillers, and so reaps the whirlwind. Excluding marijuana, prescription drugs are the most abused substances in the United States. They are the drugs behind the curtain. The media focuses on methamphetamines and crack cocaine, but 23 percent of Americans have, at some point, used a prescription drug for non-medical purposes. That equals 50 million people.

Unlike other illicit substances, prescription drugs are readily available. In one study:

  • 55 percent obtained medication from a friend or family member for free.
  • 11.4 percent purchased the medication from a friend or relative.
  • 4.8 percent stole the medication from a family member or friend.
  • Only 2.3 percent obtained their drugs from strangers.

In other words, prescription drugs have no drug dealers. They have negligent parents, sneaky siblings and unscrupulous cousins. Inpatient treatment is critical for prescription drug abusers. Removed from temptation, they can overcome the withdrawal period, reduce drug tolerance and participate in group therapy. There, they can rewrite their own histories.

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