In medicine, and as defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the term "narcotic" refers to opium, opium derivatives, and semi-synthetic substitutes. The word itself comes from the Greek word "torpor," a synonym for lethargy, which in this context means indifference to pain, hardship, and suffering. A plant named Papaver somniferum is the main source of natural narcotics. Records from Mesopotamia (5000-4000 B.C.E.) refer to this plant, the poppy flower. The ancient Greek and Egyptian societies used extracts from the opium poppy to quiet children, among other things. The Greek physician Galen prescribed opium for headaches, deafness, epilepsy, asthma, coughs, fevers, "women's problems," and for melancholy moods. Hippocrates (c. 400 B.C.E.), widely considered the father of modern medicine, used medicinal herbs, including opium. In those days, opium cakes and candles were sold in the streets. The Romans undoubtedly learned of opium during their eastern Mediterranean conquests.
The Islamic civilization preserved the medical arts after the decline of the Roman Empire and by the tenth century had established trade and an interchange of medical knowledge between Persia, China, and India. Laudanum—an alcoholic solution ("tincture") of opium—was introduced by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century and came to be widely used in Europe during the next two hundred years. In the early 1700s a professor of chemistry at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands discovered that a combination of camphor and tincture of opium, called paregoric, was an excellent pain reliever.
In the eighteenth century the British Society of Arts awarded prizes and gold medals for growing the most attractive Papaver somniferum. By the nineteenth century many babies in the United Kingdom were being soothed to sleep with a sleeping preparation containing laudanum. British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-98) put laudanum in his coffee so that he could speak better in front of Parliament. British writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were addicted to opiates like laudanum, while author Charles Dickens calmed him-self with opium.
The famed British trader William Jardine considered the sale of opium "the safest and most gentleman-like speculation I am aware of." At the height of the opium trade, the "noble house" of Jardine and his partner had eighteen well-fitted opium clipper ships and fourteen receiving ships along the Chinese coast to help unload opium shipments.
Perhaps because so few other painkillers and therapeutics were available until the nineteenth century, there appears to have been little real concern about excessive use of opium in many parts of the world. An exception was China: in 1729 the Manchu dynasty (1644-1912), in an attempt to discourage the importation and use of opium in that country, passed laws directing that opium dealers be strangled.
Since Great Britain then held a monopoly on the importation of opium into China, the British fought to
keep their highly profitable trade. The British defeated the Chinese in the Opium War (1839-42) to guarantee their right to continue to sell opium to the Chinese people. The illegal opium trade that developed in China to avoid tariffs (extra costs imposed by the government) led to gangsterism—not unlike the growth of the crime underworld in the United States when the sale of alcohol was banned during Prohibition (1920-1933).
In 1803 Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, a German pharmacist, discovered how to isolate the alkaloid morphine, the primary active agent in opium. Morphine is ten times more potent than opium. The name comes from Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. In 1832 Pierre-Jean Robiquet, a French chemist, was the first to isolate codeine from opium, another alkaloid but milder than morphine; it came to be used in cough remedies. The development of the hypodermic needle in the early 1850s made it easier to use morphine. It became a common medicine for treating severe pain, such as battlefield injuries. During the American Civil War, so many soldiers became addicted to morphine that the addiction was later called "soldier's disease."
The most potent narcotic hidden within opium, and thus within the poppy, was heroin, first synthesized in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright at St. Mary's Hospital in London. The medical potential of the drug was not fully realized for another twenty-four years. In 1898 Heinrich Dreser published his findings in Germany on the physiological consequences of what was then still known as diacetylmorphine. The Bayer Company in Eberfeld, Germany, began to market the drug as a cough remedy and painkiller under the brand name Heroin, the word derived from the German word for "heroic," intended to convey the drug's power and potency ("History of Heroin", Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/bulletin/bulletin_1953-01-01_2_page004.html). The drug was an instant success and was soon exported to twenty-three countries.
Coca, formally Erythroxylum coca, is a small tree native to tropical mountain regions in Peru and Bolivia; its leaves hold the alkaloid cocaine. The ancient South American rite of burying coca with the dead dates back to about 3000 B.C.E. In ancient times the deceased were buried in a sitting position, wrapped in cloths and surrounded by pottery containing artifacts, maize, and bags of coca to sustain them on their way to the afterlife. Even then, the Incas knew that cocaine, extracted from coca leaves, was capable of producing euphoria, hyperactivity, and hallucinations. After the Spanish conquest, coca was grown on plantations and used as wages to pay workers. The drug seemed to negate the effects of exhaustion and malnutrition, especially at high altitudes. Many South Americans still chew coca leaves to alleviate the effects of high altitudes.
In the 1850s Paolo Mantegazza, an Italian doctor, came to value the restorative powers of coca while living in Lima, Peru. In the late 1850s he published a book praising the drug, which led to interest in coca in the United States and Europe. At that time in Europe the chemist Angelo Mariani extracted cocaine from coca leaves; cough syrup and tonics holding drops of cocaine in solution became very popular ("Mariani's Coca Wine" and "Dr. Mariani's French Tonic"). Pope Leo XIII awarded Mariani a medal for his invention. Thomas Edison, President William McKinley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were among those praising the product (Arthur C. Gibson, Freud's Magical Drug, Los Angeles: University of California, http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Erythroxylum/index.html). William Hammond, U.S. surgeon general under President Abraham Lincoln, was impressed with the drug, but most doctors were unsure. Popular response, on the other hand, was very favorable, as extracts from coca leaves appeared in wine, chewing gum, tea, and throat lozenges.
A developing temperance movement helped fuel the public's fondness for nonalcoholic products containing coca. In the mid-1880s Atlanta, Georgia, became one of the first major American cities to forbid the sale of alcohol. It was there that pharmacist John Pemberton first marketed Coca-Cola, a syrup that then contained extracts of both coca and the kola nut, as a "temperance drink."
Most doctors of the time generally felt uncomfortable with cocaine. They were not alone. In 1914, when Congress outlawed the sale of narcotics (with the Harrison Narcotic Act), cocaine, although a stimulant rather than a narcotic, was bundled in legislatively with opium and its derivatives. The government considered cocaine a social danger—particularly among southern African-Americans—rather than a physically dangerous drug.
Hallucinogens are drugs that have the ability to alter people's perceptions, sensations, and emotions. Naturally occurring hallucinogens derived from plants have been used by various cultures for magical, religious, recreational, and health-related purposes for thousands of years. For more than two thousand years Native American societies often used such hallucinogens as the psilocybin mushroom of Mexico and the peyote cactus of the Southwest in religious ceremonies. The religious use of peyote has been a matter of legal controversy. Federal law made its use illegal but granted states the right to make exceptions. Several states, including Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, have allowed its use in certain circumstances, such as when it was used by Native Americans in "bona fide religious rites" or by those who were members of the
Native American Church. In 1990 the Supreme Court decided the First Amendment did not guarantee this right, only permitted it. Three years later Congress reinstated the right by overturning portions of the court's decision with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). In 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that the RFRA was unconstitutional. Later, a number of states began to allow peyote use under limited conditions.
Although scientists were slow to discover the medicinal possibilities of hallucinogens, by 1919 they had isolated mescaline from the peyote cactus and recognized its resemblance to the adrenal hormone epinephrine (or adrenaline). Research was also done on hallucinogens, particularly the synthetic hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), for possible use in psychotherapy and treating alcoholism during the 1950s and 1960s, with debatable results.
Cannabis is the term generally applied to the Indian hemp plant Cannabis sativa from which marijuana, bhang, ganja, and hashish are derived. Bhang is equivalent to the U.S.-style marijuana, consisting of the leaves, fruits, and stems of the plant. Ganja is prepared by crushing the flowering tips of cannabis and collecting a resinous paste; ganja and hashish are the same thing, and more potent than marijuana and bhang (Arthur C. Gibson, "The Weed of Controversy" Los Angeles: University of California, http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Cannabis/index.html). Cannabis dates back more than five thousand years to central Asia and China; from there it spread to India and the Near East.
Cannabis was highly regarded as a medicinal plant used in folk medicines. It was long valued as an analgesic, topical anesthetic, antispasmodic, antidepressant, appetite stimulant, antiasthmatic, and antibiotic. But by the mid-twentieth century its use as a "recreational drug" had spread, eclipsing its traditional medicinal uses. According to the Almanac of Policy Issues ("Drug Trafficking in the United States," http://www.policyalmanac.org/crime/archive/drug_trafficking.shtml, May 2004), smoking marijuana is by far the most common illicit drug-using activity in the United States. Its medical uses are not forgotten, however, and one argument for the legalization of marijuana is to ease the suffering of patients with cancer, glaucoma, and a number of other conditions.