Sunday, July 3, 2016

Creating a Nation of Addicts, The Strange History of Patent Medicines, Marijuana, Morphine, and Heroine in America

True, or false?

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you could walk into the corner drug store and buy a do it yourself druggie, kit complete with a hypodermic needle, and vials of opium and morphine? The original formula for Coca-Cola™ contained real cocaine? Bayer Pharmaceuticals aggressively marketed heroin beginning in 1899, touting it as a cure for headaches, tuberculosis, menstrual cramps, and more?

True, true, and true again.

Let’s try another one.

Drugs weren’t a real problem in America until the 1960’s. It was that damned Rock ‘N Roll music that spawned the Hippie movement, marijuana, LSD, cocaine, and heroin addiction. Before the 1960’s Americans didn’t do drugs, right?

Wrong again!

Here’s the real scoop on addiction in America.

Historians can trace the use of marijuana as far back as the writings of Chinese Emperor Shen Nung somewhere around 2700 BC.  According to the Emperor, marijuana was used as a cure for rheumatism, gout, malaria, and even absent mindedness.

The Spanish conquistadores brought cannabis to America with them in the early 1500’s, and records from the Jamestown Colony in 1611 show cannabis was the second largest crop grown there next to tobacco. Hemp was one of George Washington’s largest cash crops at his Mount Vernon plantation. But, he grew it to make rope, not for its medicinal uses—right?

For nearly 150 years, patent medicines were used, and abused, by a large portion of the American public. One of the most popular of these medications was laudanum. Laudanum was a potent mixture of 90% alcohol and 10% opiates. Famous laudanum abusers include Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Laudanum was sold over-the-counter as a cure for almost any ailment out there—cramps, headaches, aches, pains, you name it. Women were especially susceptible to laudanum addiction as it was a common prescription for female problems, menstrual cramps, and depression.

Morphine was created somewhere around 1810, and was named after the Greek god Morpheus (the god of dreams) because it took people away to a dreamlike state. Morphine soon became the miracle drug of its day, and doctors used it to treat severe pain.

In wartime America, morphine became a quick fix for soldiers who had their arms and legs shot off. It offered quick relief from the pain, and was supposed to be “non-addictive.” But as doctors soon discovered, that wasn’t the case.  Morphine users needed larger, and more frequent doses, to get the same degree of relief.

After the Civil War, morphine became the drug of choice in America. It is estimated, two to five percent of the adult population, was addicted to morphine in the post war years—between 1865 and 1900.

Bayer Pharmaceuticals, a German company, began marketing Heroin in November of 1898. To be fair, they didn’t create heroin.

Charles Romley Alder Wright, an English chemist, was the first to synthesize heroin in 1874, but he didn’t do anything with his creation.

Bayer recognized the medicine’s potential after conducting tests on animals and some of their employees. Not surprisingly, their employees loved heroin. The consensus was it made them feel like superheroes.

By the late 19th century, so many doctors had prescribed morphine that America was quickly becoming a nation of morphine addicts. Because morphine addiction was such a huge problem, Bayer felt the biggest market for heroin was as a cure for morphine addiction. It was as easy to buy as aspirin is today. Every corner drug store sold morphine kits.

Bayer touted heroin as a “non-addictive” substitute for morphine. They promised the drug could cure tuberculosis, cough, colds, cancer, mental illness, old age, you name it. At the turn of the century, you could walk into a store and buy heroin chewing gum, heroin cough drops, heroin cough syrup, and heroin pills. It didn’t matter if you were a man, woman, or child, as long as you had the required payment - usually five or ten cents.

The only problem was as early as 1899 studies confirmed heroin was more addictive than morphine. In 1899 Horatio Woods, Jr. noted heroin was addictive, and to get the same effect patients needed stronger doses. Two other early studies noted similar effects about heroin use. One was a 1903 report in the Alabama Journal of Medicine, and the other, a 1911 study in the Kentucky Medical Journal.

Surprisingly enough, at the height of this controversy, the American Medical Association (AMA) gave its blessings to heroin in 1907.

After continued complaints about heroin addiction, Bayer gave into public pressures and stopped selling heroin in 1913.


Coca-Cola™ was created in the 1880’s by John Pemberton, a Civil War veteran. The original version contained real cocaine, and was sold as a patent medicine. It was touted as a cure for morphine addiction, headaches, impotence, and similar diseases.

Relief from pain and suffering cost just five cents a bottle.

Rumor has it the company removed most of the active cocaine ingredients in 1904, and all traces were removed by 1929.


The big news today concerns legalizing medicinal and recreational uses of marijuana. What most people forget is for most of America’s past, marijuana was prescribed by doctors as a cure for neuralgia, gonorrhea, headaches, asthma, bronchitis, and menstrual cramps. There’s even some talk George Washington used it to relieve the pains he experienced from toothaches.

Recreational use of marijuana wasn’t considered a major problem until the early 1900’s. Mexicans fleeing the revolution in 1910 ignited the trend here. Because of its ties to illegal immigrants, lots of research was done that tied marijuana use to crime, violence, and other deviant behaviors. By 1930 twenty-nine states passed laws banning marijuana usage.

In 1936, French director Louis Gasnier released the film Reefer Madness. The movie was a cautionary tale about the effects of marijuana use on high school students. One student gets high and runs a pedestrian over. Later he is told the person died, and feels no remorse. Other scenes depict students driven to rape, suicide, and madness because of marijuana use. In the final scene, the school principle warns other student not to let these things happen to them.

The next year Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which effectively criminalized marijuana use. 

The Boggs Act in 1952, and the Narcotics Control Act of 1960, made a first offense for marijuana use punishable by a mandatory sentence of two to ten years in prison, and a fine of up to $20,000.

In 1970, Congress repealed the minimum sentences imposed for marijuana use, and in the following decades many states decriminalized marijuana usage completely.


So the next time you’re watching the evening news with grandma, and she tells you how much better it was in the old days because they didn’t have all of these temptations—tell her, “not so.”

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