Drugs Throughout History: Why We Can’t Kick The Habit

Drug use has long been a controversial issue, but the current debates surrounding it are far from new. Drugs have been a part of society for centuries, though a few in particular have, and continue to, spark disputes and clashes despite being household names – albeit illegal ones… Georgie Broad explains.


Cocaine is the second most used illegal drug in the UK and widely used in other Western countries, and this popularity can be seen through the drugs’ history, having been legal until late into the 19th century and beyond. However, in those times, cocaine was also considered harmless in moderate doses, and even advertised for its apparent medicinal purposes. Victorian pharmaceutical companies promoted their “cocaine toothache drops”.

The claims about the alleged safety of the usage of cocaine may seem bizarre to us now in the age of never ending health and safety checks, however in the early 19th century the drug was cheap to come by and sparsely tested for any unwanted side effects (if it was tested at all, that is) and so it was easier, and more lucrative, for companies to claim its safety than to actually prove it. In actual fact, cocaine is one of the most powerful drugs in terms of creating a psychological dependence!

Cocaine was not just used in the powder form we know today. In 1863, Angelo Mariani created Vin Mariani, a wine that, thanks to its ingredients, created a rather potent mixture, producing roughly 6.5mg of cocaine per ounce. Even Pope Leo XIII during the mid-19th century carried with him a “tonic” in a hip flask that he claimed helped to fortify him when prayer wasn’t sufficient, and advocated its use through posters!

Many famous writers turned to the drug when a little lacking in inspiration, including Emile Zola, Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was not uncommon for the more creative minds of the centuries to turn to recreational drug use – a fallacy and legacy that is still controversially perpetuated by many musicians and writers today. It was also popularized in America by manual laborers as it was believed to increase productivity, and was essentially used in the way we use caffeine today.

As the 20th century progressed, people became wary of ‘innocent people’ being led astray thanks to the effects of the drug. It was seen to be the drug of choice in the lower classes of society and among immigrants, and soon the media began to inflate and exaggerate its effects on African American citizens which at the time caused mass hysteria and invoked vehement hatred – both toward the drug and its users. It wasn’t long before the US government cracked down on the drug and took more stringent and effective legal action.


Cannabis is the most used drug worldwide, and has a colorful history stretching back around 4,000 years, though it was only in the mid-19th century that the drug gained popularity and notoriety in the West. By this time, it could be freely purchased throughout stores in America, and even Queen Victoria was a user, as she was prescribed cannabis by her doctors to help relieve her period pains!

During the 1800s, cannabis was widely used by the artistic and literary community, with many of the great novels we now love having been written by authors who were, most likely, high. So popular was the drug that greats such as Dumas and Victor Hugo began a club in France, “Le Club des Haschischins”, where members would meet up, smoke cannabis and discuss art and life.

Recovering alcoholics were often given cannabis as a way to help them along the road to kicking their addiction, and the drug was much more popular than drink. During the Prohibition era in America, many women advocated the use of cannabis in lieu of alcohol, claiming it didn’t lead to such violent reactions from men who took it. This appreciation of the more mellow results of cannabis can be seen elsewhere, too – for example the Wooton Report of 1968 stated that there was in fact no evidence of “agression or anti-social behaviour” or “conditions of dependence”.

Cannabis was the most used medicinal drug in America during the early 1800s; however advances in medicinal science brought with them injectibal drugs (such as morphine) and asprins, thus leading to a declin in the use of cannabis not just in the USA, but throughout the West. The difficulty of standardising dosages also signalled a decline in the drugs use.

Once again, it was partially thanks to social issues that the eventual illegalisation of cannabis came about. Its usage was tied to immigrant jazz musicians in North America and their unappealing and unconventional way of life. Once again, a smear campaign raised the negative profile of the drug and its users to the point where it almost criminalised itself without any government interference.


At the end of the 19th century, morphine was a very popular drug. In 1898, the Bayer Pharmaceutical company began to sell a preparation of diacetylmorphine (which was essentially morphine boiled for several hours). It was a new drug heavily promoted as being non-addictive and very effective for curing ailments such as tuberculosis or bronchitis, as well as allegedly helping people recovering from morphine addictions. This drug was given the name Heroin.

In 1906, it was approved by the American Medical Association for general use, and was even recommended as a replacement for morphine itself. Unfortunately, far from the original desires for the drug, a population of around 200,000 heroin addicts sprung up around America. This problem persisted, leading to the eventual litany of Acts and regulations passed to quell the usage of the drug – along with many others. The Harrison Narcotics Act, for example, was passed in 1914 in an attempt to stop the abuse of cocaine, heroin and cannabis, and it shortly became necessary for doctors to pay a tax on the drug.

By 1924, the Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD claimed that around 94% of all crimes were commited by heroin addicts, and it was not long after that the drug became outlawed for both medical and personal use.

In perspective

The reputaion, usage, and market for drugs today seems just as turbulent as in the past; controversially glamourised by celebrities, surrounded by debate, and yet still undeniably a part of society. Today, arguments on the legalisation of cannabis can be heard around the world, and you often hear the tagline “heroin chic” attached to models and celebrities who have that certain rugged, palid, and slightly ill-looking demeanor.

As we can see, smear campaigns have always surrounded drugs and their users – from the racial arguments in the 19th century to those around us today warning against drug use, painting users as destitute criminals.

Billions of dollars circulate around both the drug market and the rehabilitation programmes set up to combat usage and addiction, but it seems that the fight to find a common ground among society, drugs, and the law is far from being won.

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