What is the history of addiction?

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Drugs have been part of human history for centuries, but the nature of addiction and dependence has changed considerably. What might be called drug cults, historically located in traditional cultures and sometimes associated with religious ceremonies, have metamorphosed in some modern societies into alarming mass tendencies. The nature of addictive drugs also has evolved, particularly since the mid- to late twentieth century.
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Early History of Drug Addiction

The history of drug addiction can be traced to prehistoric times. Certain areas of the world, most notably pre-Columbian America, may be said to have developed a culture of drugs as part of religious (or ceremonial) belief systems.

The use of plants with narcotic effects by ruling elites and priests was noted by Spanish conquistadors who came in contact with the Incas of Peru. Drugs such as peyote (derived from a spineless cactus growing in Mexico and parts of Texas) have been used by indigenous populations around the world for their transcendental effects and as meditation. In North America, the historic and cultural precedent of such practices would eventually lead to the development of the movement known as peyote religion.

Probably the most widely known historical example of addiction is the case of so-called opium dens in China. Although popular views may have distorted the image of opium addiction in China, the problem of opium consumption definitely increased during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. The Chinese imperial administration, acting in response to a push by India-based British merchants to flood the Chinese market with opium imports, attempted several times to outlaw opium use and stop the opium trade. The influence of the drug and its economic impact led to the conflicts known as the Opium Wars. Historians also note the use, and the production, of opium in eighteenth century colonial America, in which local militias seem to have used the drug before entering battle. They did so with the knowledge and even encouragement of commanders.

Modern Rise of Drug Addiction

Drug addiction in some form was probably present in most societies from ancient times into modern times. Alcoholism, for example, has certainly been documented throughout history, though due to its widespread cultural acceptance alcohol is often considered apart from other addictive drugs. A general consensus exists, however, that the socially damaging spread of addiction has become a hallmark of mass modern cultures, particularly in the Western world, beginning in the twentieth century. Factors such as mass production, globalization, and chemical synthesis made more forms of addictive drugs more widely available to a broader range of people. Similarly, behavioral addictions have most likely always existed, but as they are more controversial it can be difficult to trace their historical incidence. Nevertheless, many argue that modern culture has increased the prevalence of behavioral addictions.

Certain addictive drugs have played such a significant role in the modern Western world that each demands its own full history. This is especially the case with marijuana (cannabis and hashish), cocaine (a product of the coca plant), opium (a product of the poppy plant), morphine (derived from opium), and heroin (derived from morphine). Drugs that have spread throughout the world since the mid-twentieth century have shorter but, in terms of their disastrous addictive effects, equally important histories. Among these drugs are methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

In the United States and Canada several addictive drugs became particularly popular in certain periods and among certain population groups. While the dangers of smoking marijuana (or any of the common drugs associated with marijuana) continue to be debated, there is general agreement that, compared with hard drugs, marijuana is not necessarily an addictive drug. This is not the case with other drugs that became popular in recent history.

Concerns over addiction and other effects of various drugs have caused many governments to implement bans on certain substances, whether altogether on in particular contexts. As new compounds were discovered and more rigorous scientific research clarified the effects of drugs, some substances that were formerly legal or simply ignored became controlled by law. Even culturally accepted drugs such as alcohol and tobacco drew criticism as observers increasingly connected their physical and psychological effects with negative social outcomes. Temperance movements seeking—among other goals—to stop addiction reached a climax with the Prohibition era (1919–1933) in the United States, in which alcohol was made illegal. One unintended side effect of the ban was the glorification of illicit consumption not only of alcohol but also of cocaine and other drugs for partygoers. Rather than prevent addiction, Prohibition in many ways helped create the networks of production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs that help promote addiction. At a much less glamorous level (in this case both before and after the Prohibition years), both male and female addicts have become prostitutes to obtain money to sustain their habit.

Statistical studies (limited in the first half of the twentieth century) indicate that the number of addicts in the United States and Canada declined between 1940 and 1945, probably because of wartime effects on international supply lines. Drug addiction became an increasing problem, however, in the second half of the century. By the 1950s news of rising drug addiction spread rapidly through the media, particularly when, starting in 1953 in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics began collecting detailed statistics.

A growing body of statistical reports covering the next five decades of the century would reveal different levels of susceptibility to the dangers of addiction. What was considered alarming in the first years after 1950 was that the use of “soft” drugs (such as marijuana) was becoming almost commonplace; also, the average age of cigarette smokers was decreasing.

Debate about the presumed nonaddictive nature of marijuana and its potential medical benefits continued, and so did debate about the dangers of hard drugs. Addiction was soon an unavoidable subject for government agencies, educational institutions, churches and synagogues, medical treatment centers, and, inevitably, the penal system.

Perhaps foremost on the list of hard drugs associated with addiction before the 1960s is heroin . Initially (around World War I, when chemists discovered a process to derive heroin from morphine to use as a legal painkiller), private users of illegal drugs may have welcomed heroin for its illusory and temporary euphoric effects (later referred to as a heroin rush). Attraction to such sensations had its costs, as heroin users begin to enter alternate periods of wakefulness and drowsiness (a state known as the nod). Mental faculties declined and other bodily functions (such as speech, vision, digestion, and bowel elimination) were affected too. Withdrawal symptoms experienced by an addict (for example, muscle and bone pain, muscle spasms, insomnia, and severe upset stomach) reach their height after about forty-eight hours without new injections. Heroin use notably became a hallmark of some subcultures, especially artistic groups such as jazz musicians, from the 1920s onward.

1960s Drug Culture

Probably more than any other decade, the 1960s stand out as the era both of increasing hard drug addiction and of a rising level of popular experimentation with drugs. Public consumption of marijuana became synonymous with anti-establishment youth rebellion.

The use of dangerous psychedelic drugs, particularly acid, or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), was more limited. However, acid was part of a counterculture wave not only among youth but also among the adult population. By the end of the 1960s, however, the term drug culture began to be associated not only with youth rebellion but with widespread social, economic, and political problems. Although, like marijuana, most hallucinogens were not shown to be physically addictive, their mind-altering effects and potential as gateway drugs—leading to the use of harder, more addictive substances—made them highly suspect to law enforcement and other establishment groups.

Rising levels of addiction in the economically depressed environments of large cities in the United States became increasingly alarming. Also, US military authorities announced a significant number of cases of service members in Vietnam using drugs. The greater reach of mass media such as television and radio led to widespread public awareness of drug use and the growing signs of the psychological, economic, social, and politically destructive effects of addiction. In 1971 President Richard Nixon called drug abuse the United States' number one public enemy. In the following years the US government faced the issue with policies that would become known as the War on Drugs, seeking to combat addiction and other social problems through the suppression of certain drugs and military involvement in nations considered part of the illegal drug trade, particularly in Central and South America.

Crack Cocaine and Methamphetamine

Crack cocaine’s appearance on economically depressed inner-city streets in the United States in the mid-1980s marked the beginning of a new and dangerous direction for confirmed addicts and for new drug users. Crack is a highly addictive rock-like substance that is a by-product of a chemical process that converts normal powder-form cocaine. Illicit manufacturers of crack cocaine omit certain steps in the production process and use cheap sodium bicarbonate as a substitute additive. The product can be marketed at lower prices, thus attracting economically disadvantaged drug users. The growth in drug use was met with greater rates of incarceration for drug crimes. Harsher sentences for crack than powder cocaine proved controversial due to potential racial and social implications, while an emphasis on jail time rather than rehabilitation for addicts also drew criticism.

Methamphetamine (meth) became a significant addictive substance in the 1990s. Synthetic ephedrine (the basic component of amphetamine) had been produced by chemists in Germany and Japan in the last decades of the nineteenth century. As early as the 1930s the derivative amphetamine became a major prescription drug used to treat a number of illnesses, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, and various forms of depression. Methamphetamine itself became an important new arrival on the drug scene when relatively simple but dangerous chemical methods of producing it became known both to profit-seeking dealers and to a rising number of meth addicts. All such chemical processes are exceedingly dangerous, not only because of risks of fire and explosions but also because of resultant (potentially deadly) contamination of so-called cooking sites and surrounding buildings, some of which must be permanently condemned.

A notorious name associated with this particular sector of the drug culture is Uncle Fester (pseudonym for industrial chemist Steve Preisler, known in his college years for experiments with explosives). In the mid-1980s (following his arrest for purchases of ephedrine and for possession of meth) Preisler wrote the extremely controversial Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture. His other books have equally alarming titles (Home Workshop Explosives and Silent Death).

Drug Addiction in Canada since 2000

The experiences of Canada with heroin, cocaine, and meth addiction have received less attention than in the United States. Statistics from Canada indicate that, in the case of heroin, a stark contrast exists between recorded drug use nationally (less than 1 percent) compared with drug use in large cities and certain “vulnerable” regions. Northwestern Ontario’s figure in 2003 (2.4 percent), for example, was about double the number for the rest of the province. Generally, however, Canadian statistics have shown a gradual decrease in heroin usage in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The picture for meth use in the same period is of more concern. Overall, national statistics indicate that 4.6 percent of the population had tried meth at least once, whereas in certain provinces (Quebec and British Columbia in particular), the figures were not only higher, but instances of addiction were increasing.

Studies of drug addiction in Canada, of meth in particular, note a trend that seems to be emerging in all countries where drug addiction is a serious problem: The relative age of those experimenting with (but not necessarily addicted to) meth is much lower than in previous years. In 2004, for example, more than 10 percent of Canadian youths between the ages of twelve and seventeen years indicated they had tried meth. The situation was even more serious among homeless youth in large cities such as Montreal, where meth use affected more than one-half the persons surveyed.

Criminal Involvement in Drug Addiction

The history of drug addiction includes not only the consideration of specific drugs and their effects but also the effects of addiction on society. Such effects inevitably involve penal violations and legal sanctions to control the effect of drug violations on society as a whole.

At the highest level, large-scale international drug dealings are considered among the most dangerous and harmful arenas of criminal activity, affecting certain areas of the world in particular, namely Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Afghanistan. However, street-level criminality involving drug addicts and drug dealers in many cities of the United States and Europe has at times reached near-epidemic rates.

Because addiction often forces addicts to spend money that goes beyond their means, the temptation to earn money by stealing or by selling drugs to others is common, even if they are employed. In economically depressed neighborhoods, where more than one-half the potential labor force remains unemployed, this phenomenon can create disastrous consequences, especially when rival gangs (often linked to sponsorship from higher-level drug dealers) defend their “turf” with violence. The victims of this violence have included addicts, dealers, and even bystanders.

Although drug addiction is almost always associated with the use of hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, ample evidence shows that young people who become addicts often had their first experience with drugs by experimenting with chemicals in common over-the-counter substances. Some practices, including the sniffing of certain household chemicals, have occurred for several generations.

New ways to get high with common, legal substances are found regularly. In mid-July 2011, for example, the New York Times reported rising evidence that young people were using certain common bath salts containing the dangerous chemicals mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone as recreational drugs. In this case, harmful effects may be immediate and drastic. Efforts to stop over-the-counter sales of such products have been unevenly successful, varying from state to state.


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