Drug use through the ages

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 18, 2002

Editor's note: This is the second story in a 13-week series that focuses on drug addiction in South Central Alabama.

Drug use has a long history in the United States, and since the 1800s Americans have been addicted to drugs. In fact, according to Charles Whitebread, a professor of law at the University of Southern California Law School, in 1900 between two and five percent of the entire adult population in the United States was addicted to some form of drugs.

But, at that time, the majority of adults became addicted not from recreational use, but accidentally, from use as medication such as morphine which was used in anesthesia. By 1880, so many Union soldiers were addicted to morphine that the problem became known as the &uot;soldier’s disease.&uot;

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Because there were no federal agencies or pharmaceutical companies to examine and regularly monitor the sale and distribution of drugs, the American population often turned to &uot;magic elixirs&uot; that would take both pain and problems away.

&uot;Advances in chemistry and technology enabled scientists to isolate morphine from crude opium in the early 1800s, and in the mid-1800s, those scientific advancements allowed for the extraction of cocaine from the coca leaf,&uot; said Dr. Sue Rusche, co-director of the Addiction Studies Program for Journalists and chairman, president and chief executive officer of National Families in Action. &uot;In addition, the invention of the hypodermic needle in the mid-1800s also allowed for the injection of medicines for faster action.&uot;

In the early 1900s, there was no Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor what people were selling, and as a result, the United States government began importing large amounts of opium for doctors to help &uot;cure&uot; addiction and for manufacturers to stock patent medicines.

But, as more and more of the population became addicted to such substances as opium, cocaine and alcohol, the public pushed for monitoring of these &uot;worthless medicines&uot; and for states to create some methods of control.

As a result, one of those controls came in 1906 with the creation of the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act. The act required that food and drugs must be pure, contents must be labeled, drugs must be safe and effective, and all must be approved by the FDA, which also was a creation of the act.

Rusche said that after the creation of the FDA and several other drug control laws, the nation then settled into a long period of relatively little drug use, and by 1962, less than two percent of the entire population and less than one percent of adolescents had tried an illicit drug.

But Rusche said that with the Vietnam War and the social protests of the 1960s, drug use rose to its highest levels, peaking in 1979. &uot;At this time, 25 million Americans used drugs regularly and one-third of adolescents, 70 percent of young adults and 65 percent of high school seniors had tried an illicit drug,&uot; she said.

But since then, drug use in America, although still a significant problem, has declined.

In 1999, about 14.8 million Americans were current users of illicit drugs, meaning they had used an illicit drug at least once during the month prior to being interviewed for the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an annual nationwide survey among Americans age 12 and older. In addition, about 3.5 million were dependent on illicit drugs, and an additional 8.2 million were dependent on alcohol, according to reports of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health.

Although drug use in America is still occurring, the history of use and addiction has shown that there has been a decline since 1979. However, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that since the September 11 attacks, 23 states, five cities and Washington D.C. have detected an increased demand for treatment, which in the long run hopefully will reduce the use of drugs across the nation in years to come.