A Brief History On Today’s Drugs

Whether it is through a powder, liquid, tablet, nasal spray, patch or other means, many users of today’s illegal drugs find ways to push the limits in regards to how high they can get regardless of consequences. It may come as a surprise to discover that many of the drugs that are considered illegal were created for legitimate medical purposes or were used by societies in other capacities. The following are some examples of illicit substances and the history behind these drugs.



Heroin ( aka junk, skag, horse, brown sugar) is a powerful narcotic drug and is part of the opiate family of drugs, along with morphine and codeine. Like all opiates, heroin is derived from the resin found in the seedpods of the poppy plant. First synthesized in 1874 and reformulated in 1897, Bayer marketed “Heroin” as a cough suppressant and as a “wonder drug” to combat tuberculosis and pneumonia which were the leading causes of death during that time period.

Initially touted as a non-addictive alternative to morphine, researchers soon discovered that heroin was more potent and more addictive and medical sales of the drug were stopped by 1924. In 1970, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) passed the Controlled Substances Act in which heroin was made a Schedule I substance. Over the past few years, the United States has seen a dramatic surge in overdoses and deaths due to the drug.

According to information from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA),heroin abuse among first-time users has increased by nearly 60 percent in the last decade, from about 90,000 to 156,000 new users a year. Additionally, it was estimated there were 669,000 regular heroin users in the United States in 2012.



Prescription painkillers are derived from opioids, which are synthetic derivatives of opiates such as morphine and mimic the effects of opiates. The development of painkillers for surgery and other medical procedures occurred as a result of researchers trying to find non-addictive alternatives to opium, which was banned in 1905. Interestingly, the first painkiller that was developed was methadone, which was created by German scientists in 1937 as a surgical anesthetic.

With the introduction of Vicodin in 1984, the next two decades saw the creation of several now well-known prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Percocet. Prescription painkiller use in widespread in the United States. According to information provided by the CDC, doctors had written out 259 million prescriptions for prescription painkillers in 2014. That is nearly enough for every citizen of the United States to have a bottle. Additionally, the United States comprises nearly three-quarters of prescription drug consumers worldwide, yet comprises only 5 percent of the world’ s population.



Invented in 1860, cocaine was used in the 1880’s as an anesthetic for eye surgery and researchers investigated its’ use as a possible morphine addiction treatment. During this time period, cocaine (aka snow, toot, C, blow) and coca-based products were touted as cure-alls and was the active ingredient in Coca-Cola until 1903, when public pressures regarding the dangers of the drug were widespread. In 1912, the United States government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths in one year and the drug was officially made illegal in 1922.

During the 1970’s, there was a resurgence in the popularity of cocaine and became the glamour drug for business people and entertainers and become associated with the rich and famous. By the late 1980’s, however, reputation of America’s most dangerous and addictive drug and large Colombian drug cartels were bringing cocaine to America, Europe and Asia by the hundreds of tons. By the late 2000’s, cocaine was the second most trafficked drug in the world.

In the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 17 percent of all Americans aged 26 or older had used cocaine in their lifetime. Additionally, the greatest percentage of current cocaine users are in the 18-25 age group.



Methamphetamine (aka crank, ice, tweak) was first created in Japan in 1919 and first went into widespread use during World War II when both sides used it to keep troops awake during combat. In the 1950’s, the drug was used as a dietary supplement and in the treatment for depression. Because of its’ easy availability, use of the drug become widespread among college students and over-the-road drivers and the abuse of the drug spread. By 1970, the United States government made it illegal and production of the drug shifted to illegal laboratories and by the 1990’s these operations become widespread.

In 2013, 595,000 Americans said they used meth in the past month, compared to 440,000 who used the drug in 2012. Additionally, meth use is at near epidemic levels in certain regions of the United States and especially in states like Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky. The spread of meth use and production has been aided by quicker and easier ways to make the drug, including the shake and bake method in which people can use the main ingredients of meth and an empty two liter bottle of soda to create the drug in as little as fifteen minutes.



This drug, also known on the street as “the Devil’s Breath”, is an alkaloid found in nightshade plants and well as a number of trees native to South America. The first known use of the drug was for Project MKULTRA as a possible “truth serum”. The drug is also used as an anti-nausea medication and can be found on transdermal patches to treat the nausea that is associated with both chemotherapy and motion sickness.

In the last couple of years, scopolamine has been known for more sinister uses and has been dubbed “the most dangerous drug in the world”. Known as the “zombie” drug, the most common uses for the drug are to perpetrate violent  acts such as rape, robbery, and murder. Perpetrators will usually slip it into a victim’s drink or will blow the powder in the face of their victims.  It only takes a few minutes for a person to fall under its spell and those under its influence can be guided around and be told what to do and will comply while looking completely normal.

Little is known in regards to addiction rates with this drug in the United States since it is used and prescribed for medical reasons.



Ecstasy–also known as Molly or MDMA–is a synthetic drug that has properties of both amphetamine and the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. In 1912, German pharmaceutical company filed for a patent of MDMA as a precursor to a drug that was hoped to be effective in controlling the bleeding of patients. In the 1950’s, the US Army conducted animal experiments using MDMA in order to find interrogation tools or in psychological warfare.

During the 1970s, pharmacologist Dr Alexander Shulgin rediscovered the MDMA compound and the drug was promoted as a therapeutic product to give patients insight into their problems and reduce their psychological defenses. The recreational use of ecstasy exploded in the 1980’s with the emergence of the electronic music, dance and rave culture.

In 1985, ecstasy was banned in the United States and is considered a Schedule I drug in which it is considered not to have any medical use and is highly addictive. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2012 there were a reported 16,162,000 lifetime users of MDMA, 2,610,000 past-year users, and 628,000 past-month users.



First synthesized in India in the early 1950’s, quaaludes (aka ludes, Mandrax, happy tablets) were first introduced in Europe as an alternative to barbiturates and became a popular sedative in England. The drug came to America in the 1960’s as a widely prescribed sedative and quickly became a popular recreational drug. Highly addictive, quaaludes were made a Schedule II drug in 1973 and by 1981 the DEA ranked Quaalude use second only to marijuana and estimated that 80 to 90 percent of world production went into the illegal drug trade.

By 1984, quaaludes were classified as a Schedule I drug and the DEA was able to control the abuse problem associated with the drug. Since that time, quaaludes have virtually vanished from the United States and are no longer available. Any quaaludes that are circulating in the country are through the black market.



Barbiturates (aka downers, sleepers, tootsies, red dolls) were first manufactured for medicinal use in 1903 and were used to help treat anxiety, sleep disorders and seizures. This class of drug was  best known for use as sleeping pills or tablets in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but their popularity waned in the 1970’s with the development of benzodiazepines, Barbiturates are extremely dangerous to use since the correct dosage to use in each individual is difficult to predict. Even the slightest overdose can cause death.

Because of the significant decline in the use of barbiturates, abuse statistics aren’t common because of the belief that it isn’t widespread. It has been shown that about 9% of individuals in the United States will abuse a barbiturate during their lifespan.


sleeping pill

Benzodiazepines (aka benzos, tranks) were first developed in the mid-1950’s by Dr. Leo Sternbach, an Austrian chemist working for the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche. Patented in 1959, it was introduced originally as Librium in 1960, benzodiazepines were seen as as a safer alternative to barbiturates in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Over the years, derivatives such as Valium and Xanax were also developed.

Of all drugs in this group,  Xanax is the most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medication in the United States. Every year, it is estimated that over 50 million prescriptions for the drug are written by doctors and approximately 125,000 people are admitted to emergency rooms each year due to misuse of the drug.




Marijuana (aka reefer, pot, Texas tea, weed) was introduced to America by the English who colonized the Jamestown settlement. It was grown as a cash crop and grown alongside tobacco during in early American history. In the early to mid 20th century, marijuana found uses for various conditions including labor pains and nausea and was used on a recreational basis, most notably by the jazz musicians of the era. By 1937, marijuana was banned under the Marihuana Tax Act.

In the 1990’s doctors saw the medicinal value of marijuana and in 1996, California became the first state to legalize the use of medicinal marijuana. By 2012, states such as Washington and Colorado passed laws that decriminalized marijuana use and possession. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug with 19.8 million people using the drug in the past month with 81 percent of all illicit drug users using the drug in the same time period.



Arguably the oldest drug in the world, alcohol (aka booze, brew, hooch) was used in ancient Egyptian and Asian cultures for ceremonial and ritual uses. During the time of colonization in America, British settlers brought alcohol (often called spirits during that time period) with them and used it for medicinal purposes but use eventually become recreational. Over the next couple of centuries, there was a push for moderation which led to the establishment of Prohibition in 1920.

In the wake of Prohibition, the illegal alcohol trade surged and by 1933 Prohibition was repealed. Alcohol is the most used drug in the United States, and in 2013 16.6 million adults over the age of 18 were reported to have an alcohol abuse issue. According to information provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,  88,000 people die in alcohol-related accidents each year making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.


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