The History of Substance Use & Abuse

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Have you ever wondered if drugs were used in the ancient world? If so, why? What is the modern history of drug use and abuse? In this lesson, you'll get a crash course in the history of drugs.

What is Substance Abuse?

Have you ever known anyone who used drugs in such a way that they were negatively impacted by the use of that substance psychologically and/or physiologically? If you have known someone like this, then that person had a substance abuse problem. Drugs have been used and abused throughout history. Let's go over the origin and history of drugs and drug-taking behavior.

Pre-Modern Times

The use of drugs for various purposes goes back thousands of years. Ancient shamans, basically the priests of their days, used all sorts of plants in order to enter into trance-like states. For example, there is a mushroom called Amanita muscaria that has been used in Central Asia for at least 4,000 years in various religious rituals. This same mushroom has been used for religious ceremonies in Siberia and ancient India. In Central America, a genus of mushrooms called Psilocybe has been used for its psychedelic properties for much the same reason.

People who lived in Mexico before the arrival of the Europeans, as well as the Navajo people of the U.S., have used peyote, which is a type of cactus with psychoactive properties thanks to a compound called mescaline. Opium, a substance derived from the opium poppy plant, has been used for thousands of years around the world, from ancient Greece to Egypt, for medicinal and recreational purposes. Opium relieves pain and makes people quite joyful, as even the ancient Sumerians stated themselves.

Peyote Cactus

Early Modern Era

In the 18th and 19th centuries, opium was an extremely sought-after commodity in China even though it was at one point made illegal. So much so that when the government of China recognized the fact that opium addiction was ruining its country, they cracked down on the illegal smuggling of this drug. Because it was extremely lucrative to sell opium on the Chinese market, British naval power forced China to open its markets back up to opium in a series of Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860). Drugs have started wars and continue to do so to this day.

Opium Wars

Let's not forget the more commonly used drugs in many parts of the world: alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine. These have been used by people all over the world for many reasons for thousands of years, such as religious rituals, to feel better, to have more energy, and so on. For example, some Native Americans used to smoke various tobacco products and mixtures for personal use and as part of religious rituals.

Modern Times

In modern times, most of the substances our ancestors used are still common, including derivatives like heroin, which comes from opium. Cocaine was once a drug that was widely used in all sorts of medical elixirs as well as popular drinks, like the aptly named Coca-Cola. Don't worry, Coca-Cola no longer contains any cocaine. During prohibition, people loved to gather and spend time in speakeasies to consume as much illegal alcohol as possible. Speakeasies were bars hidden away from the authorities, who were trying to destroy alcohol and put people in prison for its use.

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