Addiction Across the Cultures: Examining the Use of Drugs Throughout Human History

Last updated on March 4th, 2024 at 05:48 pm

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Humans have engaged in inducing altered states of mind since ancient times. Many people and cultures long ago used substances in rituals, daily life, and recreation. Tobacco, different types of mushrooms, fermentations, and coffee are just some of the substances used in North America. Here are a few brief histories of drugs in America.


One of the more popular drugs in the nineteenth century was cocaine. American doctors claimed that it was useful in the treatment of asthma, sexual impotence, hay fever, and many other conditions. Cocaine was a popular additive in many remedies that were widely available to people of all ages and backgrounds. When Coca-Cola made its debut in 1886, cocaine was a key ingredient. In 1914 the federal government began to heavily tax the substance before later banning its use. One of the catalysts behind the disdain for cocaine was fueled by Whites fearing that Black men were consuming it and becoming bulletproof and supernaturally strong. Cocaine has taken many forms and is now considered to be a luxury drug that is only afforded by those with higher incomes, and requires high-end addiction treatment.


During the 1800s and before, opium was a commonly used substance. In fact, during the Civil War and afterward, opium was used as a painkiller for wounded soldiers, and also as a cough suppressant. Many soldiers quickly became addicted to opium as a result. It was available to the general public of all social backgrounds and sold in many patent medicines and elixirs in apothecaries and general stores. People used products laced with opium for depression, the common cold, menstrual cramps, and toothaches. On the West Coast, opium dens were very popular among Chinese immigrants. Whites were worried about losing job opportunities to the immigrant workers and began to take issue with the opium dens. This resulted in San Francisco being the first locality to ban opium dens; and by 1914, opium was banned by the federal government. It’s estimated that by the end of the 19th century, around 500,000 Americans were addicted to this substance.


This popular recreational drug was also a common additive in many over-the-counter remedies for headaches, toothaches, and menstrual cramps during the late 1800s. When an influx of Mexicans began migrating to the US after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many came with their habit of marijuana use. As with cocaine and opium, American Whites began to fear that Mexican immigrants would take their jobs and become violent criminal offenders. The racially motivated concerns eventually led to the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which illegalized its use.

Drugs have been used in America by many different cultural groups since its inception. The saying goes, “History repeats itself.” If there’s any truth to this saying, there should be no surprise that these substances are still around. A lack of understanding of these substances and biases against those who use these substances has played a big part in legislation and the treatment of those who consume them. 

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