Past and Present Drug Epidemics: What We Can Learn From Addiction History

It seems we hear something in the news media every day about the drug epidemic in our country. However, drug epidemics did not just start occurring in recent years. Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have been problems for numerous years in our country as well as others.

Humans have experimented with drugs for many thousands of years.  Historians reveal a long timeline of our ancestors using various substances in religious or spiritual ceremonies.  Many naturally growing plants and herbs were used in their concoctions such as dried quids of chewed coca leaves.  As far back as about four thousand years ago, hollowed out animal bones were formed into pipes that were used for smoking intoxicating seeds or plants.  Other archeological findings show that the oldest evidence of opium use was found in Europe and Asia.

Fast-forward to today, and we are facing an epidemic of drug abuse and addiction of shocking proportions.  The number of cocaine deaths per year and heroin overdoses and deaths each year continues to rise.  When we factor in the number of deaths annually from alcoholism, prescription drug addiction, and hundreds of other addictive substances, it seems we still have a lot to learn about past and present drug epidemics. We need to learn how to prevent history repeating the decline of a vast portion of the human population from the effects of these dangerous substances.

Statistics Reveal the Shocking Truth

The following statistics provide a surprising perspective on where we stand today in regards to drug overdose deaths in the United States:

  • 64,000 people died from drug-related causes in the United States last year
  • Drug overdose deaths rose by 22 percent in one year alone in the US
  • Overdoses will continue to be the leading cause of death for people under age 50
  • More than 20.5 million people over the age of 12 have a substance abuse problem, with more than 2 million of those having prescription drug abuse addictions
  • Approximately 12,990 overdose deaths in the US are attributed to heroin abuse
  • More than 6 million people over the age of 12 have used crack cocaine at least once
  • Of the 2 million ER visits for drug abuse, cocaine is responsible for over a quarter of that number.  Cocaine death statistics per year reach about 15,000

With these figures in mind, it is apparent that we need to find better solutions.  Maybe we can learn something from past mistakes and see a workable approach that will keep people out of prisons and out of cemeteries so they can function in society as contributing, healthy citizens.

Years in the Making: A Timeline of Drug Epidemics

Drug abuse and addiction have not suddenly appeared on the scene to catch us by surprise the way a virus might.  Mankind has experimented with and suffered from the adverse effects of substance abuse for centuries.  Looking back, there may be some lessons we can learn that could make a significant difference in the way we approach the issue today.  Let’s take a look at some of the past drug epidemics and gain a better understanding of how today’s problems compare:

  • The 1860s – Civil War soldiers became addicted to a man-made opioid named morphine that was used to treat the pain from battlefield injuries.
  • The 1870s and 80s – Opium dens were popular places where people could obtain opium and spend hours relaxing on cots while using this drug. In 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act banned the importation of opiates used purely for recreational use.
  • The 1900s – People became addicted to heroin after using it to “cure” morphine addiction.  Also, opium was widely used in liquids such as laudanum to help with sleep disturbances or pain.  Many thousands of men and women became addicted to this substance.
  • The 1900s – Cocaine was used to treat morphine addiction, resulting in cocaine addictions. Eventually, cocaine addiction became an epidemic that prompted President Taft to declare cocaine as “the most serious drug problem the nation had ever faced.”
  • 1914 – Congress passed the Harrison Act which stated that cocaine and heroin could only be obtained by written prescription.
  • The 1920s – Cocaine remained popular in Hollywood, especially among celebrities.
  • The 1930s – Amphetamines were developed and were promoted widely as weight loss products, sleep aids, and as a treatment for depression.
  • The 1950s – methamphetamine became popular for its energy-producing effects.  Users were referred to as “speed freaks.”
  • The 1960s and 70s – Heroin use surged as a result of Vietnam war soldiers being exposed to it overseas.  It became the drug of choice for inner-city poor people who received little or no compassion or help for their addiction.  This decade also saw a surge in marijuana, LSD, and cocaine use.
  • The 1980s – Cocaine and crack cocaine were the most popular drugs of abuse. Also, club drugs or rave drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy), Ketamine, and inhalants were known as “Poppers” and were widely used.
  • The 1990s – Oxycontin was developed and used as a pain control medication that was supposed to be a safer opioid than heroin or morphine.  Addictions abounded as people found themselves wanting more and more of the drug.  Others used the drug illicitly by crushing the pills to snort or inject it.
  • The 2000s – Prescription drug abuse and addictions are at unprecedented levels.  Vicodin, Fentanyl, Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Adderall, Ambien, and Demerol are only a few of the hundreds of highly addictive, legal substances causing addictions today.  Cocaine-related deaths per year are at an all-time high today.  Heroin overdose deaths continue to rise yearly.

What Does Addiction History Teach Us About Drug Epidemics?

Drug epidemics have been approached in a variety of ways through the decades.  Stricter regulations, more stringent laws, increased law enforcement, more prisons, and extended incarcerations have done little to curb the rising tide of drug-related activities and deaths.  For one example of the ineffectiveness of these approaches, take a look at prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s.  Prohibition was an initiative that would hopefully curtail the crime associated with alcohol use and smuggling.  In the end, it only succeeded in causing more crime as people became determined to have their substance. The regulation of alcohol was successful in some respects.  However, it gave rise to some of America’s most notorious organized crime gangsters like Al Capone.

So, if we can’t stop drug epidemics altogether, what can we do to save lives?

  • Stop it before it starts – Expand education and awareness campaigns.
  • Provide affordable treatment – Helping people get treatment versus putting them in prison is a step in the right direction. Research shows that recently released prisoners who were serving time for drug abuse will relapse within the first three months after their release and end up back in prison.
  • Tighter controls on prescription drugs – Improved methods for monitoring patients who are prescribed opiates.  Identify and crack down on over-prescribers and pill-mills.

Studies show that young teens are beginning to use drugs at much younger ages today than in the past.  Many of these teens have witnessed drug use by their parents and been the victims of abuse or neglect by those parents.  This is another front in the war on drugs that need more attention.  If we can reduce the number of addicted parents, then the number of teen addicts should decrease dramatically.

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