From Medicine to Illegal

Recreational drugs are often considered to be the byproduct of the Sixties, but the drugs themselves have long histories of both legal and illegal use before that time. There are different classes of recreational drugs as determined by the legal status in different countries. The groups I will touch upon are opiates, psychedelics, anesthetics, cannabis, and stimulants which are illegal in the United States. There are several more, but these are the ones I can discuss with some educational insight.

Heroin is an opium derivative initially discovered in the 1870s, but was rediscovered by Bayer Pharmaceuticals of Germany in 1898 while working on the manufacturing of codeine for pain relief drugs. Heroin was marketed as a children’s cough suppressant and cure for morphine addiction until it was discovered that heroin is converted to morphine in the liver. The United States legislated heroin as prescription only in 1914 and then banned its sale altogether in 1924. Many prescription pain relievers on the market today are opioids, derivatives of the same base chemical as heroin. Earlier in Europe opium was smoked in opium dens, much like alcohol is consumed in bars today, and has recreational uses dating back to fifteenth century China where opium poppies were initially grown. There are still opium wars occurring in Middle East poppy fields today due to the financial gains of worldwide recreational use of its derivatives.

Psychedelics are drugs that cause hallucinations whether they be visual or auditory. I include in this grouping LSD (acid), MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline (peyote), and psilocybin (shrooms). Peyote and mushrooms are known to have been used in religious ceremonies and spirit walks far back into the history of native cultures. Their natural psychedelic properties were probably found by accident and seen to be from the gods. LSD and ecstasy are manufactured mimics of this process. Ecstasy could also be categorized as a stimulant since its psychedelic effects are often unnoticed.

LSD was initially introduced for psychiatric treatment. It was created by Sandoz Laboratories of Switzerland in 1938. It was tested by the British government alongside psilocybin in the 1940s and 50s, but was leaked out of a Harvard laboratory and began being used recreationally by the now infamous Dr. Timothy Leary. The drug was officially banned and criminalized in 1966.

Ecstasy is infamous for being part of the club scene, or raves, but MDMA was first patented in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck as an intermediate molecule in the synthesis of a clotting agent. It was used as an adrenaline mimic in 1927 cardiovascular research studies, but was then shelved due to high synthesis costs, until 1960. The U.S. military used MDMA though in animal studies in the 1950s to determine experimental agent lethal doses. MDMA was used as a psychotherapeutic drug and recreationally until it was criminalized in the UK in 1977 and the U.S. in 1985. However, in 2001 research was started to investigate if MDMA might benefit those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) due to the feeling of euphoria it instigates.

PCP was patented in the 1950s as an anesthetic by Parke-Davis. Because of its deleterious neural effects it did not have much use on the market and was shelved in the 1960s, around the same time it began being used recreationally. The illegal use has now spread to similar anesthetics such as ketamine, which is a common veterinary pharmaceutical.

Cannabis is an herb that contains cannibinoids, chemicals that bind the cannibinoid receptors in the human brain and are involved in pain, memory, neurodegeneration, and inflammation. The active cannibinoid compound in marijuana is THC (9-tetrahydrocannibinol). The history of marijuana use is somewhat open for debate. It is believed that the herb was used by the Scythians as early as the 5th century BC, evidenced by archaeological finds of hemp seeds, and the Sadhus in India in religious ceremonies. Some scholars believe that cannabis may have been an ingredient in the holy anointing oil used in the ancient Judaic culture and some more speculative individuals believe that the Bible may reference Jesus smoking marijuana. However, marijuana has only been criminalized in the United States since the mid 1900s. It was originally banned as a way to focus anti-Mexican sentiments since the perception was that most smokers were immigrants coming to the United States from Mexico. Marijuana was made a schedule 1 drug, putting it in the same category as LSD and heroin, in 1970 as a way to focus anti-hippie sentiments. This was a long cry from the original legislation in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act, placing a tax on the sale of the herb, similar to what is done today with tobacco.

Cocaine is a stimulant that was also once on the ingredient list of Coca Cola. Cocaine is derived from coca leaves which have historically been chewed by South American natives, even before the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Pure cocaine was extracted in 1860 in Europe and used in medicinal and consumer products especially as a topical anesthetic for eye, nose and throat surgery. Also, the psychologist Sigmund Freud was an advocate of its use to treat depression. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a voice of opposition, laying out cocaine’s destructive properties with his fictional character Sherlock Holmes. In 1916, despite growing popularity, cocaine use was heavily legislated and then condemned in the same 1970 legislation as many other recreational chemicals.