Opiates: A Brief History of Addiction

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According to Time magazine, the current “opioid crisis is the worst addiction epidemic in American history.” There are tens of thousands of deaths each year caused by opioid addiction and overdose. This is such a harrowing statistic that one has to ask – how did this crisis about opiates happen?

How did opioid use become an epidemic? How do we stop it? 

The answers lie in the history of opiates. There was a time when opiates were so widely used before the harmful effects were known. There was a time when opiates were considered commonplace medicine.

America is in the middle of a nationwide crisis that must be neutralized. Knowing the history of the drug we are fighting will help us to defeat the epidemic.

What is an Opiate?

An opiate is a substance that is naturally derived from the opium poppy. Common opiates are heroin, codeine, and Opioid Pain Medication. 

The other term closely related to “opiate” is opioid. Opioids are drugs that bind to the parts of the brain that control pain which includes all opiates and even other synthetic drugs. Popular synthetic opioids are Opioid Pain Medication (hydrocodone), Prescription Pain Medicine (oxycodone), fentanyl, and Opioid Maintenance Medication.

Both opiates and opioids are extremely addictive and commonly misused.

Early History of Opium

The use of the sap of the opium poppy for relieving pain and feeling high can be traced back to Mesopotamia in 3400 B.C. Ancient Sumerians called the plant “the joy plant.” The use of opium spread through the Ancient Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians. In Homer’s Odyssey, he wrote about the healing powers of opium

More than likely, the ancient civilizations that used opium were not aware of the addictive or harmful effects of the drug. They used it to help control pain, help people sleep, and even to calm crying children. It was even used as anesthesia during ancient surgeries. In addition to the practical and medicinal uses of opium, ancient civilizations also used the drug for recreational purposes.

The Opium Wars

There were two “Opium Wars” throughout history. The First Opium War lasted from 1839 to 1842. The Second Opium War went on from 1856 to 1860.

The First Opium War

The First Opium War was caused by China’s desire to squash the illegal opium trade within its own borders. British traders had been bringing opium into China, and it has led to widespread addiction. Once it began to have extreme socioeconomic effects in China, the country acted.

The History Channel online reports that the British government resorted to “gunboat diplomacy” during the First Opium War to force China to keep their ports open. As a result of this war, China was forced to give Hong Kong to the British in the Treaty of Nanking.

The Second Opium War

The Second Opium War was caused by Britain and France wanting to gain more commercial privileges in China. They also wanted to legalize the opium trade and gain more legal and territorial rights in China.

Again, China lost. These losses were the catalyst that formed the “Century of Humiliation” that did not end until World War II.

An American Crisis

America is facing a current opioid epidemic, and she also faced a nationwide opioid epidemic at the end of the 19th century. America is no stranger to crises and the fact that the country has already beaten this kind of widespread drug addiction before gives hope that it can be beaten again.

The Introduction of Opium

Opium was brought into America by Chinese immigrants that came for work in California during the Gold Rush in 1849. These immigrants brought their opium smoking habits along with them.

The Chinese immigrants went on to set up “opium dens” all over the West. These opium dens were places where opium was bought, sold, and smoked. By the 1870s, opium smoking had become a habit for many Americans.

In 1875, San Francisco passed legislation to limit the use of opium and to make owning and/or operating an opium den illegal. This Chinese-led spread of opium led to prejudice against the Chinese immigrants, eventually causing a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration to America.

America’s First Addiction

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Hamilton Wright, an Ohio doctor, to be America’s first Opium Commissioner. At this point in American history, the country was facing it’s first national drug crisis. Wright himself had stated that Americans “have become the greatest drug fiends in the world.”

What caused the rise in opioid addiction in America? Simply put, the ignorance of the long term effects of drugs derived from opium (and opium itself) caused the addiction. The desire to continue to feel the effects of the drugs once they were introduced caused the epidemic.

The Soldier’s Disease

Opioid addiction in America truly began after the Civil War. Veterans became addicted to Opioid Pain Medication, which was prescribed to them for the physical and mental pain they had developed as a result of the war. This anguish was known as “Soldier’s Disease,” an old term for PTSD.

The Rise of Opioid Pain Medication Use

Opioid Pain Medication was invented in the 1820s, but the invention of the hypodermic needle allowed Opioid Pain Medication use to become more widespread. Being able to inject the drug straight into the bloodstream caused faster and more intense highs than ever before.

Opioids as Medicines

While Opioid Pain Medication-dependent Civil War veterans were the first American addicts, opioids were also being used to treat common illnesses. 

Laudanum was tincture made of alcohol and opium that was used to treat coughs and relieve diarrhea in children. 

Opioid Pain Medication was used to treat a myriad of conditions. Some of them were pain, asthma, alcoholic delirium, gastrointestinal issues, and menstrual cramps.

Heroin was introduced as a safe alternative to Opioid Pain Medication. It was given freely to those trying to kick their Opioid Pain Medication addiction. It was marketed as non-habit forming. 

The Drug of Choice for Society Ladies

Smithsonian.com reports that “before 1900, the typical opiate addict in America was an upper-class or middle-class white woman.” Why was this?

It’s simple – many common problems that were female-specific were treated with opiates. Menstrual cramps, “diseases of a nervous character,” and morning sickness are some female-specific illnesses that male doctors typically prescribed opiates to treat.

These treatments led to dependency and addiction among women.

The Fall of Doctor-Led Addictions

Eventually, medical knowledge and technology allowed for doctors to understand what caused medical conditions that they treated with opiates. Knowing what caused the medical conditions allowed the doctors to treat and cure the conditions and illnesses without having to mask symptoms with opiates.

While these medical and technological advances helped change the history of medical treatment and made sure that doctors were no longer prescribing opiates and inadvertently causing addictions, another problem arose because of them. 

The drugs took to the streets. 

Poppy | Opiates | The HillsDrugs Move to the Streets

When doctors were prescribing opiates, the addiction took hold in soldiers and higher-society women. America’s first addiction took on an entirely new face when it moved from the doctor’s office into the streets and homes of the country.

The New Face of America’s Addiction

By the 1910s, the typical addict was a young guy who spent his time in the streets, snorting and shooting up opioids with his friends. The fact of drug use changed from a gentle society lady to a guy from the wrong side of the tracks.

It gave the opiate addiction a rougher face, one that was easier to want to lock away. 

These new rough and tough addicts that were standing on America’s street corners ushered in a movement to restrict opiate use in America.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act

Because of the rising use of opium and drugs that were formed from opium, Theodore Roosevelt appointed Hamilton Wright as the country’s first Opium Commissioner in 1908. History.com reports the following:

“In The New York Times in 1911, Wright was quoted as saying, ‘Of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita. Opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any other nation in Europe fences it with. China now guards it with much greater care than we do; Japan preserves her people from it far more intelligently than we do ours, who can buy it, in almost any form, in every tenth one of our drug stores.’” – “Heroin, Opioid Pain Medication and Opiates”

At a result, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed in 1914. This law was passed in order to regulate and restrict the sale and distribution of opium, products derived from opium (namely heroin), and even cocaine. The Anti-Heroin Act was passed in 1924 that further restricted heroin.

The Current Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports the following statistics:

  • In 2017 and 2018, 130+ people died every day from opioid-related drug overdoses.
  • In 2017, 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids.
  • In December of 2017, 47,600 people died from overdosing on opioids.
  • In 2017, 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder.
  • 886,000 people used heroin in 2017.
  • 81,000 people used heroin for the first time in 2017.
  • 2 million people misused opioids for the first time in 2017.
  • In December 2017, 15,482 deaths were attributed to overdosing on heroin.
  • 28,466 deaths were attributed to overdosing on synthetic opioids other than Opioid Maintenance Medication in December of 2017.

These absolutely harrowing statistics show the very real, very serious threat that opioids are to our country.

Why are Opioids so Addictive?

Opioids attach to the brain and spinal cord. They directly affect the body’s central nervous system, relieving pain and promoting a sense of calm. Some report a feeling of euphoria and a “high” from taking opioids.

Today’s doctors are, unfortunately, learned the same lesson that doctors in the late 19th century were forced to learn about opiates and their effects – opioids are much more dangerous and addictive then they seem.

Commonly prescribed opioids are codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, Opioid Maintenance Medication, Opioid Pain Medication, oxycodone, and oxymorphone. These drugs are prescribed to control both extreme short-term pain and chronic long-term pain. 

The combination of these legal, prescription opioids and the illegal drug heroin have ushered in America’s second opioid crisis.

So, How are We Working to Stop the Abuse of Opioids?

Doctors during the late 1800s were able to understand the dangers of what they had been prescribing the patients as medical technology advanced to show them how to properly treat illness and pain, but we already have medical technology. We already know what these drugs can and will do.

So, what is being done to fight the current epidemic?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently employs a 5-point strategy to fight the opioids crisis. That strategy includes:

  • Access to better prevention, treatment, and recovery services
  • Better data on the epidemic
  • Better pain management
  • Better targeting of overdose-reducing drugs
  • Better research on pain and addiction

According to the “Strategy to Combat Opioid Abuse, Misuse, and Overdose,” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services further describes each point of the 5-point strategy.

Access to Better Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Services

“Improve access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services to prevent the health, social, and economic consequences associated with opioid misuse and addiction, and to enable individuals to achieve long-term recovery.”

Better Data on the Epidemic

“Strengthen public health data reporting and collection to improve the timeliness and specificity of data, and to inform a real-time public health response as the epidemic evolves.”

Better Pain Management

Advance the practice of pain management to enable access to high-quality, evidence-based pain care that reduces the burden of pain for individuals, families, and society while also reducing the inappropriate use of opioids and opioid-related harms.

Better Targeting of Overdose-Reducing Drugs

Target the availability and distribution of overdose-reversing medications to ensure the broad provision of these drugs to people likely to experience or respond to an overdose, with a particular focus on targeting high-risk populations.

Better Research on Pain and Addiction

Support cutting-edge research that advances our understanding of pain, overdose and addiction, leads to the development of new treatments and identifies effective public health interventions to reduce opioid-related health harms.

In Conclusion…

The history of opioid abuse is long, dating back before synthetic versions of opiates to when the drugs were first manufactured from the poppy, and its hold on the American people is strong. However, new regulations and laws are in place to limit the prescription of opioids. Law enforcement and the federal government steadily fight heroin use on the streets, and information about the danger of opioid use is quite literally everywhere.

America beat this addiction once, and she will definitely beat it again. 

If you’re struggling with opioid addiction and you’re looking for help to break free of this addiction that has plagued the world from the dawn of time, reach out to The Hills in order to find out how our facility can help you break free from addiction.

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