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The History of Psychoactive Inhalants

The History of Psychoactive Inhalants
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  • 0:01 What Are Inhalants?
  • 0:48 Inhalants in the Past
  • 2:01 Modern Use of…
  • 3:14 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Inhalants have been used throughout history in order to achieve an altered state of consciousness. This lesson will briefly outline the use of inhalants from ancient times to the abuse of modern day chemicals.

What Are Inhalants?

The ancient Greeks inhaled vapors in order to speak to the Gods. People in Victorian times did it for fun. In fact, there are thousands of people who do it today.

Unfortunately, just because it's been around for a while doesn't make it safe. Inhalant abuse is one of the most dangerous types of drug abuse. Using inhalants just one time can result in irreversible physical or mental damage, or death.

Inhalants are vapors from toxic substances that are inhaled in order to become intoxicated. In other words, these vapors are inhaled to alter one's state of consciousness or to get high. Inhalants are found in many common household products. This makes inhalant abuse a fast and easy way to get high.

Inhalants in the Past

Inhalants may be easier to obtain in modern times, but their use can be traced back to ancient times. Most of our knowledge of ancient inhalant use is related to mystical practices. Inhaling fumes from incense, oils, or perfumes to alter consciousness was a part of ancient cultural and religious practices throughout the world. In fact, certain types of incense and aromatic materials are still used as a part of worship in a number of religions.

One famous example of ancient inhalant use would be the rituals at the Oracle of Delphi. Many researchers believe that the trance-like state entered by the Greek priestesses was induced by inhaling ethylene vapors that were rising from fissures in rock beneath the temple.

By the early 19th century, inhalants began to be used for the purpose of intoxication. Common anesthetics, such as nitrous oxide, ether, and chloroform were unregulated and able to be purchased at this time. In fact, the use of these anesthetics for recreational purposes was often demonstrated and marketed to the upper class at public exhibitions or private parties. The use of anesthetics for recreational purposes continued throughout the 19th century. Nitrous oxide was the most popular of these inhalants and was considered by the social elite to be the well-mannered way to get drunk.

Modern Use of Inhalants in the US

Inhalant use in modern times has shifted from recreational use by the upper class to a cheap form of drug abuse that is easily available to anyone. The recreational use of inhalants became popular once again in the mid-20th century.

Gasoline was the most common inhalant, probably because it was cheap and easy to obtain. The first reported instance of gasoline sniffing was in Warren, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s. The inhalant abuse of gasoline spread across the United States and was a widespread phenomenon by the end of the 1950s.

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