Medicine has come a long way in only a few decades: since the 19th century, we have seen the eradication of deadly diseases and a deeper understanding of the substances that can heal illnesses and protect against the spread of disease. Of course, not every medical discovery has had a triumphant and positive impact on society. Some substances that were initially developed with good intentions and intended to be used as essential medicines and treatments ended up having dangerous side effects, leading to dependence, addiction and generations of individuals who suffer from substance abuse.
Before chemists started to experiment with synthesizing chemicals in the 19th century, doctors and pharmacists had cobbled together medicines using natural substances, which were successful only to varying degrees. The discovery of synthetic chemical medications led to many of the very effective, essential treatments that are used every day, such as aspirin… and a few others that had much more disastrous consequences.
Substances such as morphine, cocaine, and LSD that are heavily controlled or illegal in most countries today were once created with good intentions and prescribed by doctors and pharmacists as useful treatments. Many of these substances were in use for decades and were seen as necessary to ease the pain of those who were suffering from painful ailments and even psychiatric conditions. Over time, however, the side effects of these substances became better known and, as we all know now, the risks posed by these substances ended up outweighing their potential benefits.
The following substances were once used by medical doctors and practitioners, but are now either heavily controlled and illegal because of their disastrous side effects.
Opium is an ancient narcotic that dates back to 3400 BC, when the poppy that produces the drug was first cultivated in Mesopotamia. It was used medicinally since the Neolithic Age as a natural source to induce anesthesia and provide pain relief. It was also in common recreational use all over the world, until China became the first country to ban its use as a recreational drug in the 18th century. In the 19th century in the United States, doctors frequently prescribed it to treat pain, often giving it to women as a pain medication and even giving it to infants to help with teething pain. As a result, many opium addicts ended up being older women. It was so popular (and addictive) that Chinatowns in many U.S. cities were home to opium dens. The drug wasn’t made illegal in the U.S. until the early 20th century, effectively ending its use as a recreational substance.
In the 19th century, scientists began to understand how to perform chemical analyses of substances and thereby synthesize drugs. Morphine is the result of the first time in history that a natural plant alkaloid was isolated. In the creation of morphine, a German pharmacist purified the main ingredient in opium. The German pharmacist named his concoction after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams. Soon, morphine was widely used for pain relief, which was in high demand during the wars of this era (including the American Civil War). However, eventually it was discovered that morphine has a high potential for addiction and psychological dependence. It also began to be used illicitly for this reason. As a result, morphine is now classified in many countries as a controlled substance.
Heroin was actually created in the late 19th century by a German chemical company as an alternative medication to the very addictive morphine. First marketed as a treatment for coughs and other chest problems such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, heroin worked well to treat those ailments and ease the discomfort of sufferers. However, it was soon discovered that patients like to continue using the substance long after their treatments were over, and another scientist realized that in order to remain effective, patients had to be given larger and larger doses of heroin. Eventually, everyone came to terms with the fact that this drug was extremely addictive – worse than its parent drug, morphine - and many patients had become dangerously dependent on the drug. In the U.S. in particular, where regulations were relatively lax at the time, heroin addiction became a huge problem. Finally, in 1924, it became an illegal substance.
Ecstasy was first discovered by a chemist in the late 19th century; however, no practical purpose for it was found so the substance was shelved and never used. That is, until the 1970s, when a pharmacologist rediscovered it and began to conduct trials for its use as a therapeutic product during psychotherapy sessions. The pharmacologist, Dr. Alexander Shulgin, claimed that the substance was useful for psychiatric patients as it helped them be more open and introspective during therapy sessions. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly popular to take Ecstasy out of the doctor’s office and into parties and nightclubs, and as a result many users became dependent on the substance. Finally, in 1985, it was banned.
LSD was synthesized in Switzerland in the early 1900s. It wasn’t well understood until 1943, when the man who discovered it accidentally consumed it and experienced vivid hallucinations. It started to be used by psychiatrists in the 40s, 50s and 60s, although its use was not really supported by any valid medical reason. Still, it became broadly distributed and found its place in parties and nightclubs, and unsurprisingly, was finally banned in 1967 by the United States.
Cocaine is derived from the coca plant, which is native to South America. The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in its native region for medicinal reasons to treat upset stomach and altitude sickness. After scientists discovered it and extracted the substance of cocaine from the plant, doctors prescribed it as a way to treat depression and morphine addiction. The coca plant and cocaine extracts were also used to treat coughs and pain, and was reportedly used as an ingredient in Coca-Cola in the beverage’s early years. It was restricted by 1914 and then listed as a controlled substance in 1970.
First created by a Japanese chemist, in 1944 Methamphetamine was approved in the U.S. by the FDA for treatment of medical conditions including narcolepsy, alcoholism, depression and allergies. However, it quickly became a recreational drug and had a high potential for abuse, so it is listed as a controlled substance in the U.S. It is still sometimes used as a treatment for ADHD and obesity.
This substance is relatively well known as a recreational drug and a substance that can be used as a medical treatment. As a medical treatment, Cannabis can reduce nausea and vomiting after people have to go through chemotherapy and for sufferers of HIV/AIDs. It can also be used to treat pain. The cannabis plant, which is used to produce marijuana, was actually unrestricted in early days in the U.S. and in Virginia it was a popular crop grown by farmers to produce fabric. Cannabis was banned in the 1950s. Although it has become legal in some countries and in some U.S. states for medical uses, its use is still prohibited by American federal law and in many other countries.
Absinthe is created from wormwood, which was used in ancient times as miscellaneous remedies. It was well known and referenced in literature as a bitter-tasting plant that induced drunken ramblings and streams-of-consciousness. In more modern times, wormwood was distilled into the green spirit absinthe, which was created as a remedy by a French doctor in the 18th century. Absinthe was sold as a medical elixir and in the 1840s was given to French troops as a preventive treatment for malaria. However, the troops brought the substance home and drinking absinthe became a popular activity in bars and cabarets in Paris. By the late 1800s, it was embraced as a drink by poets artists and other creative, bohemian types. Finally, it was banned in the early 1900s because of its extreme side effects, which included hallucinations and disorientation. Interestingly, those side effects are now understood to be caused by the drink’s high alcohol content and the irresponsible ways in which it used to be distilled. Absinthe has recently had a modern revival and it is no longer illegal in many countries. In fact, in 2011, the ban on absinthe was lifted in France.