Roots of US Drug Crisis Run Deep. A century ago, narcotics were found in stores, taverns, patent medicines, and soda pop. ADDICTION IN AMERICA
AMERICA's drug crisis, it appears, is nothing new. The nation's strong appetite for alcohol, opium, cocaine, heroin, and other mind-altering substances goes back to the 19th century - and earlier.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
James Hawdon, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, points out that early European settlers often brought more alcohol than water for the transatlantic crossing to the American Colonies.
David F. Musto, a medical doctor, notes in his book, ``The American Disease,'' that many physicians put opium in their prescriptions in the 18th century. It eased patients' anxieties, Dr. Musto writes, but it also helped create a thriving trade in opium.
The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse observed in a study several years ago that the growing use of cocaine in the United States dates back as far as the Civil War.
Experts say the US goes through periodic cycles of heavy drug use. They peak with a wave a fear, and then begin to subside.
That happened early this century, when the use of morphine, cocaine, heroin, and laudanum (opium in alcohol) became widespread. So alarmed was the nation that Congress adopted the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 - the first nationwide effort to control narcotics.
Drugs like cocaine and morphine were in such widespread use in the 1890s that by today's standards conditions were unthinkable.
With few regulations in effect, cocaine was peddled door to door. Patent medicines containing morphine, cocaine, and opium could be purchased off the shelf in many stores.
Soda pop, including Coca-Cola, often contained cocaine to provide an extra jolt. (Coca-Cola switched to caffeine in 1903). Syrups sold to soothe babies sometimes contained opiates. Opium smoking was common.
Even taverns sold drugs. Often a bartender would add a pinch of cocaine to a glass of whiskey to give it extra punch. Dr. Musto's book notes that William Hammond, the former surgeon general of the Army, took a wineglass containing a cocaine solution with each meal as a pick-me-up. One drug company even sold coca-leaf cigarettes.
Ironically, the 19th-century scientific community saw little wrong with all this. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst, even supported use of cocaine as an addiction cure.
Midst this drug frenzy, men like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., dean of the Harvard Medical School, were voices crying in the wilderness. Before the Civil War, Holmes was warning about overuse of drugs. He was particularly concerned about America's West, where even today some of the greatest levels of drug use are found. He said:
``The constant prescription of opiates by certain physicians ... has rendered the habitual use of that drug in that region very prevalent. ... A frightful epidemic demoralization betrays itself in the frequency with which the haggard features and drooping shoulders of the opium drunkards are met with in the street.''
With that background, the current narcotics epidemic does not surprise drug specialists. But today's heavy use of drugs does have more recent causes.
Although the physical dangers of certain drugs are now widely recognized, millions of Americans have ignored the warnings and become heavy drug users during the past two decades.
Lloyd Johnston, program director at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan, is writing a paper on how America stumbled into its current crisis.