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History Of Drugs: When Were Drugs Invented?

The history of drug use, spanning civilizations and centuries, shedding light on the fascinating interplay between medicine and recreation. From the societal implications to the profound emotional impact and the worrisome rise of designer drugs, this piece underscores the pressing public health issues surrounding drug misuse and addiction that persist in our modern world.

September 20, 2023

What's The History Of Drugs?

Drug use has been a part of human history for thousands of years, with evidence of drug use dating back to ancient civilizations. While some drugs were used for medicinal purposes, others were used recreationally.

Over time, drug use has become increasingly widespread, with growing numbers of people using drugs for various reasons. Despite the benefits that some drugs have provided, drug misuse and addiction have become significant public health concerns in modern times.

A Brief History of Drugs: From Ancient Times to the Present

  • Ancient times: Plants and herbs are used for medicinal purposes, including opium poppy, cannabis, and mandrake.
  • 10th century: The first recorded use of coffee is in Ethiopia.
  • 16th century: Tobacco is introduced to Europe and becomes popular among the aristocracy.
  • 19th century: Morphine is isolated from opium and becomes widely used as a painkiller.
  • 20th century: The use of psychoactive drugs becomes more widespread, including cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines.
  • 1960s: The counterculture movement popularizes the use of marijuana and LSD.
  • 1980s: Crack cocaine becomes a major drug epidemic in the United States.
  • 2000s: The opioid crisis escalates in North America, with prescription painkillers and fentanyl contributing to a surge in overdose deaths.

Drug Use Throughout History

A timeline of the history of drugs would likely begin with ancient civilizations using natural substances for medicinal purposes.

Ancient Times

During ancient times, which encompasses a vast period of history, many different civilizations used various substances for medicinal purposes. For instance, the Ancient Egyptians were known to use opium to alleviate pain and other ailments. Opium was administered in various forms such as as a tincture, pill or powder.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans also relied on herbal remedies to treat a wide range of illnesses and injuries. Many of the plants and herbs that they used are still utilized today, including mint and garlic which have been found to have numerous health benefits.

In addition to opium, the Ancient Egyptians also used other substances such as mandrake, cannabis, and frankincense for medicinal purposes. Similarly, the Ancient Greeks and Romans employed a variety of herbs and plants such as chamomile, sage, and thyme for their medicinal properties.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, which spanned from the 5th to the 15th century, there was a significant increase in the consumption of alcohol as a recreational drug. The two most popular alcoholic beverages during this time were beer and wine, which were widely consumed by people from all walks of life. Beer and wine were not only used for their intoxicating effects but also as a substitute for water, which was often contaminated and unsafe to drink.

Tobacco use also began during this time, although it was primarily confined to the Americas. Native Americans smoked tobacco for ceremonial purposes long before the arrival of European explorers. When tobacco was introduced to Europe in the late 15th century, it was primarily used for medicinal purposes and was not yet seen as a recreational drug.

19th Century

The 19th century was a turning point for medicine, as modern medicine began to emerge and the use of drugs for medical purposes became more widespread. The discovery of morphine in 1803 was a significant breakthrough, as it provided a powerful pain reliever that was more effective than anything that had been previously available. Morphine was widely used during the American Civil War to treat soldiers who had been wounded in battle.

In the late 1800s, cocaine was introduced as an anesthetic, and it quickly became popular due to its powerful numbing effects. However, as its addictive properties became apparent, cocaine was eventually recognized as being highly dangerous and its use as an anesthetic was discontinued.

During the 19th century, other drugs were also discovered and utilized for medical purposes. For example, quinine was used to treat malaria, and aspirin was developed as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory medication. This period marked the beginning of the modern era of medicine, which has continued to evolve and expand over the last two centuries.

20th Century

The 20th century was marked by significant advancements in the development of synthetic drugs that were used for a wide variety of medical conditions. Amphetamines, which were first synthesized in the late 1800s, were widely prescribed during World War II to increase alertness and combat fatigue. Barbiturates, which were developed in the early 1900s, were used as sedatives and sleep aids.

In addition to the widespread use of prescription drugs, the 20th century also saw the rise of recreational drug use. Marijuana and LSD became increasingly popular during this time, particularly among young people and members of the counterculture movement.

The 1960s saw a significant shift in attitudes towards drug use, as many people began to view drugs as a means of self-exploration and rebellion against societal norms. This period also witnessed the emergence of widespread drug abuse and addiction, as many people became dependent on powerful drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Despite the negative consequences associated with drug use, the 20th century also saw significant progress in the development of new drugs that have saved countless lives and improved the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

21st Century

The 21st century has seen ongoing controversy surrounding drugs and their use. One major issue that has emerged in recent years is the abuse of prescription drugs, particularly opioids. Opioid abuse has become a significant public health concern, with many individuals becoming addicted to prescription painkillers and turning to illegal opioids such as heroin when their prescriptions run out.

In addition to prescription drug abuse, there has been ongoing debate about the legalization of recreational drugs such as marijuana. Today, marijuana is legal for medicinal or recreational use in many U.S. states and countries around the world. However, concerns remain about the potential negative effects of marijuana use, particularly on young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions.

The debate around drug legalization remains ongoing. Proponents argue that legalization could reduce drug-related crime and provide better access to treatment for those struggling with addiction. Opponents argue that legalization could lead to increased drug use and addiction, and could have negative consequences for public health and safety.

The Most Commonly Used Drugs in History

Drug use has been prevalent throughout human history, and as such, certain drugs have become more popular than others. Here are some of the most commonly used drugs in history:

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is by far the most commonly used drug in the world, with an estimated 2 billion people consuming it regularly. It has been used for thousands of years and is deeply ingrained in many cultures.

2. Nicotine

Nicotine is another widely-used drug that has been consumed for centuries. Tobacco smoking became popular in Europe during the 16th century and quickly spread throughout the world.

3. Cannabis

Cannabis has been used for both medicinal and recreational purposes for thousands of years, with evidence of its use dating back to ancient China and India.

4. Opium

Opium has been used since ancient times for its pain-relieving properties. It was widely used in 19th century America, where it was often consumed in laudanum form.

5. Cocaine

Cocaine was first extracted from coca leaves in the mid-19th century and quickly became popular as a stimulant and local anesthetic.

6. Amphetamines

Amphetamines were first synthesized in the late 1800s and were widely used during World War II to increase alertness and combat fatigue.

7. Heroin

Heroin was first synthesized from morphine in the late 19th century and was marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. However, it quickly became apparent that heroin was highly addictive, leading to widespread abuse.

Statistics show that drug use remains a significant public health concern worldwide. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an estimated 269 million people worldwide used drugs at least once in 2018, with around 35 million suffering from drug use disorders. Additionally, drug-related deaths continue to rise, with over half a million people dying from drug use in 2018 alone.

The Emergence of Designer Drugs and Their Dangers

In recent years, a new trend has emerged in the world of drug use: designer drugs. These are synthetic compounds that are designed to mimic the effects of other drugs but are often more potent and dangerous. Designer drugs can be made in clandestine laboratories or even at home using readily available chemicals.

One example of a designer drug is bath salts, which first emerged in the United States in 2010. Bath salts are synthetic stimulants that are often sold under names like Ivory Wave or Vanilla Sky. They can cause hallucinations, paranoia, and violent behavior, and have been linked to a number of deaths.

Another example is fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that is many times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl has become increasingly popular among drug users due to its potency and availability, but it also carries a high risk of overdose and death.

The dangers of designer drugs lie not only in their potency but also in the fact that they are often untested and unregulated. This means that users may not know what they are taking or how much of it is safe to consume.

In addition to the physical risks posed by designer drugs, there are also legal consequences associated with their use. Many designer drugs fall into legal gray areas, making it difficult for law enforcement officials to crack down on their production and distribution.

Overall, the emergence of designer drugs represents a new frontier in the ongoing battle against drug misuse and addiction. As these substances continue to proliferate, it will be important for policymakers, healthcare providers, and communities to work together to raise awareness about their dangers and develop strategies for addressing them.

Drug Addiction Theory: From Moral Failing to Chronic Disease

The concept of drug addiction has evolved over time, with various theories and beliefs about its causes and treatments. In ancient times, addiction was often viewed as a moral failing or weakness of character, and those who were addicted to drugs were often stigmatized and excluded from society.

During the 19th century, addiction began to be viewed as a medical condition rather than a moral failing. The discovery of morphine and its addictive properties led to an increased understanding of the physiological changes that occur in the brain as a result of drug use. This led to the development of new treatments for addiction, including detoxification programs and support groups.

In modern times, addiction is widely recognized as a chronic disease that requires ongoing treatment and support. The disease model of addiction posits that addiction is caused by changes in the brain that alter behavior and lead to compulsive drug use despite negative consequences.

This theory emphasizes the importance of treating addiction through comprehensive, long-term care that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the disease.

Despite significant progress in our understanding of addiction, there is still much we don't know about this complex condition. Ongoing research into the underlying causes of addiction will continue to shed light on this fascinating topic, helping us better understand how drugs have shaped human history over time.

The Impact of Drugs on Emotional States

Drug use has long been associated with altered emotional states. From the euphoria caused by opioids to the anxiety induced by stimulants, drugs have the power to significantly impact our emotions and mental states. In fact, some of the earliest known uses of drugs were for their psychoactive effects.

The effects of drugs on emotions have been studied extensively over the years. Research has shown that different drugs can produce a wide range of emotional states, from pleasure and relaxation to fear and paranoia.

For example, studies have found that cocaine use can lead to feelings of euphoria, confidence, and energy, while also causing anxiety, irritability, and paranoia in some users.

Other drugs have been found to produce more negative emotional effects. For instance, chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to depression and anxiety disorders. Similarly, long-term marijuana use has been associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety.

Not all drug use is necessarily harmful or negative in terms of its emotional effects. Some drugs are used therapeutically to treat mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, certain psychedelic substances such as psilocybin mushrooms and MDMA (ecstasy) have shown promise in treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Overall, the relationship between drugs and emotions is complex and multifaceted. While drug use can certainly lead to negative emotional states and contribute to mental health problems in some cases, it can also provide relief from symptoms of certain conditions when used therapeutically.

The Social and Cultural Impact of Drugs Throughout History

The social and cultural impact of drugs throughout history has been significant. Drug use has been intertwined with various cultures, religions, and traditions for centuries. For example, in ancient civilizations such as the Incas and Aztecs, coca leaves were used for medicinal and religious purposes.

In more recent times, drug use has become associated with specific subcultures and countercultural movements. The 1960s saw the rise of the hippie movement, which embraced drug use as a means of self-exploration and rebellion against mainstream values. Similarly, the punk rock movement of the 1970s was associated with drug use, particularly heroin.

Drug use has also had a significant impact on popular culture. Many musicians have openly discussed their drug use in their music or interviews, while others have died as a result of drug overdose. Films and television shows have also portrayed drug use in various ways, from glamorizing it to highlighting its negative consequences.

Drug laws and policies have also had a significant impact on society. The War on Drugs launched by President Nixon in the 1970s led to increased criminalization of drug use and harsher penalties for drug-related offenses. This policy disproportionately affected communities of color and contributed to mass incarceration rates in the United States.

Overall, drugs have had a profound impact on social norms, cultural practices, and public policy throughout history. While some may argue that drug use is an individual choice with minimal societal impact, others believe that it is a complex issue that requires thoughtful consideration from policymakers and society as a whole.

Key Takeaways

  • Drug use has been prevalent throughout human history, with some of the most commonly used drugs being alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, opium, cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin.
  • Drug use can provide therapeutic benefits for some individuals but can also lead to addiction and negative consequences for many.
  • Designer drugs have further complicated the issue as these synthetic compounds are often more potent and dangerous than their natural counterparts.
  • The concept of drug addiction has evolved over time from being viewed as a moral failing to being recognized as a chronic disease that requires ongoing treatment and support.
  • Drug use has been intertwined with various cultures, religions, and traditions for centuries and has become associated with specific subcultures and countercultural movements in recent times.
  • Drug laws and policies have had a profound impact on society.
  • Drug use remains a significant public health concern worldwide with millions of people using drugs at least once in 2018 and over half a million people dying from drug use in 2018 alone.
  • Addressing drug misuse requires collaboration between policymakers, healthcare providers, and communities while raising awareness about the dangers of drugs.


  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2020). World Drug Report 2020. https://wdr.unodc.org/wdr2020/
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, March 24). Overdose Death Rates. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  • "The Failed War On Drugs," By David Boaz, Cato Institute
  • "The History Of The War On Drugs: From Prohibition To Gold Rush," NPR
  • "The Drug War At 40: A Failed Experiment," By Michael Huemer, Reason Magazine
  • American Psychological Association (APA). "Drugs And The Brain." Apa.org.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "Drugs And Health: Effects Of Drug Use On Your Body." Nida.nih.gov.

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