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Social Sci LibreTexts

7.1: Drug Use in History

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Discuss the presence of drugs in ancient times.
    2. Summarize the use of drugs in the United States during the nineteenth century.
    3. Explain the racial basis for decisions to ban opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the United States.

    Shakespeare once wrote that “what’s past is prologue.” This familiar phrase means that what happened in the past provides a context for, and can help to understand and predict, the future. To the extent that the past is prologue, the history of drug use provides a sobering lesson: Drug use has been common since ancient times and has been common in almost every society. As a recent book on drug policy states, “People have used chemicals to alter their state of mind since before there were written records” (Kleiman, Caulkins, & Hawken, 2011, p. xviii). If past is indeed prologue, then it is no surprise that drug use remains common in contemporary nations despite considerable efforts to reduce it.

    One manifestation of the long history of drug use is that humans have used mind-altering plants since prehistoric times. “Early humans discovered that eating some plants gave a feeling of relaxation, happiness, drowsiness, or peace,” one scholar writes. “Some gave a feeling of increased energy, alertness, and stamina. And some caused strange sensations, terrifying visions, or a profoundly different awareness” (Gahlinger, 2004, p. 5).


    Ancient Greeks drank poppy juice, which contained opium, around 300 BCE. Use of other drugs was also common in ancient times.

    Tilemahos Efthimiadis – National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece – CC BY 2.0.