The Origins and History of Narcotic Drugs

Narcotic abuse is a common thing observed in millions of people since the early history of China. As far as I know, opium smoking was popular in Chinese population for hundreds of years before the understanding of its addictive nature. Moreover, drugs that are considered to be narcotics today were commonly used as medications for mentally ill, soldiers, pregnant women and even children. In addition to the medical use, people began to consume narcotic drugs for the recreational purpose and soon became addicted to it. All the measures of the government aimed at controlling the prescription of narcotic drugs did not diminish the drug addiction rate and the availability of these medications. Therefore, I hold the opinion that the current issues concerning drug abuse have their roots in the origin and historical development of this kind of medications.

In general, I would say that the early history of narcotic drugs started with their recreational use and medical application that often transformed into an addiction. At the times of Hippocrates, the upper class people consumed narcotics to change their mood, while the wealthy Chinese used opium smoking as a way to relax. According to ancient Egyptian scripts, the Egyptians and the Romans used opium poppy as a remedy for relieving pain at the time of childbirth. In the 1700s, chewing the poppy leaves was treated as a means of producing analgesic effects. In America, the abuse of narcotic drugs started with the consumption of laudanum, a combination of alcohol and opium. This drug was widely used as a remedy for anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, diarrhea and coughing. Laudanum addiction was observed mostly in women who received this addictive substance for reducing the symptoms of problematic menstrual cramps, pregnancy, and childbirth as well as emotional problems. Therefore, I gather that the narcotic drugs developed long before the majority of medications that are distributed on the streets and in medical establishments today.


The therapeutic properties of some kinds of narcotic drugs were much appreciated long before the discovery of their abusive character. As far as I know, one of the most useful groups of drugs from the medical perspective is the class of opiates, which includes opium itself, tinctures of opium, morphine, heroin, and codeine. According to Rowe, opiates have become invaluable for the medical field by being analgesics, pain killers, and a mean to reduce the sensory input of pain in the brain. In addition, opiates are antitussive as they are able to reduce coughing. Finally, this class of drugs operates directly on the intestinal wall to reduce peristaltic activity, which is useful in the treatment of diarrhea. From the physical perspective, the opiates are relatively safe. Unlike alcohol or other addictive substance, even a high dosage of opiates for extended periods of time does not cause serious damage to the body and the brain. I am certain that these attributes can serve as an explanation for their widespread use as a medication.

In spite of all the benefits of opiates, it turned out that these remedies are highly addictive. The inducement of psychological response to their use leads to a physical dependence and psychological craving. As a result, even those addicts who success in overcoming a physical dependence usually experience psychological cravings for the drug effects. The scope of opiates’ abuse has much extended after the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853. Since the morphine injections displayed even more intense pain relief ability than an oral ingestion, a lot of medical practices and hospitals increased their usage of narcotics as a remedy for pain. I assume that the relief brought by narcotic drugs was much more important than the addiction caused by their usage.

While in the late 1800s one could buy any narcotic substance from street sellers, the 19th century has also become a favorable time for the narcotic drugs’ coming on the market. Thus, the commercial production of morphine began in Germany in 1827, when the drug became the most widely used painkiller for the time of the American Civil War. At that time, nearly ten million opium pills were distributed among army surgeons to use as a remedy for the serious shrapnel wounds received by soldiers. In its turn, heroin was first introduced in 1898 as a product of the Bayer Company located in Germany. As far as I know, in addition to overlooking or concealing the addictive properties of this drug, it was represented as a mean to cope with morphine addiction. Moreover, the real ingredients of these narcotic substances were unknown to the public due to their protection by patent law. As a result, different addictive substance including cocaine, opium, cannabis, alcohol, and morphine were added as a component in remedies for teething and fussy babies, although not all of them survived after such kind of treatment. My impression is that the public ignorance and the lack of alternative medical treatment have led to all those cases of addiction and deaths from narcotic consumption.

All in all, the increasing number of social and medical illnesses caused by the inappropriate use of opiates has stressed the need for legislative measures to control their use. Thus, the Poisons and Pharmacy Act adopted in Great Britain in 1868 limited the number of opiates’ sellers exclusively to chemists or pharmacists and required the marking of every bottle with a label indicating its poisonous contents. In the United States, the first attempts to ban narcotic substances are associated with the name of Hamilton Wright, a delegate of the International Opium Commission to Shanghai conference. According to Rowe, Wright was unalterably opposed to the widespread use of opium and morphine. However, the first federal regulation on narcotic drugs was adopted only in 1909, when President Theodore Roosevelt convened the Shanghai Opium Commission in order to assist the Chinese Empire in dealing with their opium issue. The fear of the spread of the Chinese drug problem has led to the Harrison Narcotic Act on 17 December 1914, which served as the beginning of all federal regulation of recreational drug use. Since then, more and more attention was paid to the inappropriate use of narcotic medications and their manufacture and distribution was strictly limited.

To conclude, I can state that the narcotic drugs have been used for hundreds of years for both medical and recreational purposes. Although they have played an important role in the contemporary medicine and served as a remedy for many illnesses, it is still hard to identify the exact period when their addictive properties have become a matter of concern. I believe that even the most successful results in the treatment of various conditions cannot outweigh an immense number of deaths and ruined lives connected with it. Therefore, it was necessary to impose certain restrictions on the use of narcotic substances and their availability on the global market. As a result, people are prescribed narcotic drugs only in rare cases and necessary measures are taken to control their illegal distribution.

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