Pivoting on the incredible story of the half-breed chief Quanah Parker whose mother, Cynthia Ann, was captured by the Comanche at age nine only to be forced back into white society as a woman, Gwynn relates the full story of these masters of the southern plains in epic fashion.
9. The Blood of Heroes, by James Donovan
By far one of the most extensive, most readable accounts of the infamous 13-day siege of the Alamo. Particularly memorable are Donovan’s intricate portrait’s of the story’s key players, including Davy Crocket, Santa Anna, and James Bowie.
8. Month of the Freezing Moon, by Duane Schultz
A fast yet thorough read, Moon is an entertaining, informative, harrowing recount of this permanent stain on American military history, the Sand Creek Massacre. From Cheyenne prophecies and the formation of Denver, to Black Kettle and John Chivington, Schultz puts all 200 pages to use.
7. Best of the West, edited by Tony Hillerman
This anthology barely sneaks into the category of non-fiction (especially considering its short section of fictional stories). Nonetheless, Hillerman’s sweeping medley of nature writing, letters, court documents, essays, tall tales, and, yes, fiction, is too good to overlook.
6. Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell
Probably the most popular of all that’s been written of the doomed egoist of the Little Big Horn, and for good reason. Connell’s book reads like a novel with what were once erudite facts on military and Indian history quickly turning to page-flipping plot-drivers.
5. So Far From God, by John S.D. Eisenhower
To truly know the history of the west, one must understand the U.S. war with Mexico. An oft-forgotten yet crucial skirmish in the evolution of the modern U.S., the Mexican-American War is explored in deep, narrative detail in Eisenhower’s book with equal attention given to both sides.
4. Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
Centering on a few notoriously disturbing criminal cases, Krakauer digs deep in this thorough expose of the Mormon faith. Sometimes biased and a little sensational – like any affecting journalism – this is the history of a religion founded in and connate with the American west.
3. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown
A landmark book for its haunting, heartbreaking story of the settling of the west from the POV of its original inhabitants. Written in the 1970s at a time of a resurgence in Indian activism, Knee lays out the many ethnological injustices committed by a people blind with destiny.
2. Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
Poetic, scientific, sarcastic, vitriolic, and beautiful. Pick just about any random sentence out of this book and chances are you’d guess its author. Solitaire begins with Abbey’s admirable yet futile fight against the development of what would become Arches National Park and ends with a rafting trip down a length of river now hundreds of feet below Lake Powell. A milestone in nature writing by conservation’s most spirited writer.
1. Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides
A tremendous narrative of a life almost too incredible to believe. To learn of Kit Carson’s adventures is nearly as astonishing as discovering the crucial roles he played in so many frontier-shaping events. Perhaps most impressive of all is Sides’ ability to paint Carson as neither hero nor villain but a resilient man riding the surf of history.
America is at the close of the 19th century. Pharmacology is a budding science, and pharmacies are rooting themselves along main street sidewalks.
Plush red leather stools crop in a row before a long wooden bar over which is painted the flowing words, Coca-Cola. At one end of the bar looms the soda fountain. Men and women smoke cigarettes and rest their elbows on the bar while beside them their children sit and swing their feet and sip from their penny-a-piece Cokes. Once or twice a father allows his son a drag from his cigarette.
Next to the soda fountain, in the pharmacy’s front corner closest the door, is the pharmacist and proprietor. He sits in a tall wooden chair behind a squat glass display case that doubles as a counter. A rash register sits atop the counter alongside the splayed medicine catalog that the pharmacist is hunched over, a pencil tapping the rim of his glasses. Below this, on three glass shelves within the display case, are the rows of pill bottles, lozenge packs, jars of white and brown powders, and green vials of syrupy liquids. Behind the pharmacist is another shelf, this one wooden and taller, stocked full of yet more assorted medicines.
Lining the walls of the pharmacy are the colorful posters and framed-flyers advertising those very bottles, packs, jars, and vials in the pharmacist’s shelves. One image by Lloyd Manufacturing Company depicts two children playing with Lincoln Logs beside the text, “Cocaine Toothache Drops. Instantaneous Cure! Price 15 Cents. For Sale by all Druggists.” Next to this is a banner for Bayer Pharmaceutical Products listing the company’s three flagship products: Aspirin (“for headaches”), Heroin (“for coughs”), and Heroin Hydrochloride (“water soluble”). Next, a plain black and white illustration of a flower backdropping a bottle of Pantopon ‘Roche,’ above the headline, “Injectable Whole Opium – From the Juice of the Poppy.”
A woman dangles tauntingly a vial of morphine above her crying infant. “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. For Children Teething.”
A second mother looks down warmly down upon her newborn. Here Pabst Extract alcohol tonic proclaims, “The joys of motherhood are increased tenfold when both mother and babe enjoy perfect health. Called upon to bear a double burden, the expectant mother must have additional nourishment not supplied by other foods.”
In elegant text, Parke, Davis & Company promote their codeine and cannabis-laced drops by declaring simply, “We suggest Cosadein to Relieve Coughs.”
Back at the soda bar, unconsciously the children swing their dangling feet faster and faster from on top their stools as the Coca-Cola, containing approximately nine milligrams of cocaine per glass, surges through their veins.1 Next to them their parents cough and their eyes water as their Dr. Batty’s–brand Asthma Cigarettes (“Effectively Treats: Asthma, Hay Fever, Foul Breath, and All Diseases of the Throat.”) puff and cloud about their faces.
Behind his counter, the pharmacist circles the medicines in the catalog that need refilling, then brings the pencil back to his eyeglasses and resumes tapping. His knees are shaking. He eyes the children along the soda bar and attributes his anxiety to their rising squeals. He reaches into the glass shelves below him, and takes another sip of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.2
Over the centuries, Americans have acquired their medicines primarily through three sources: Natural home remedies; drug companies that produce, advertise, and ship prescription drugs to doctors and pharmacies; and patent drug companies that produce and sell over-the-counter medicines directly to the public.3 During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most popular of the three sources was the patent drug company, and for good reason. Laden within the best-selling, over-the-counter drugs sold by such patent companies as Bayer were the narcotics opium, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol, just to name a few. The population could not get enough of them, and from 1859 to 1903 the revenues earned by patent drug companies rose from $3.5 million annually to $74.5 million.4 In the early years of the 20th century, and to little surprise in retrospect, America was home to a thriving culture of addicts, a great portion of them confused by their affliction for their diligent use of “doctor recommended” medicines.
In more recent decades, given their accessibility and the growing numbers of addicts and related fatalities– especially those fatalities involving celebrities – prescription drugs have found themselves scrutinized under a harsh medical and legal light. A new drug culture has emerged, one that includes the doctors treating prescription drug abuse, the members of law enforcement working to fight it, and the often well-meaning people who are suffering from it. It is a culture disturbingly similar to the very one produced more than a hundred years ago by the patent drug companies. Then, as it is now, every party – the doctors, the cops and lawyers, and the abusers themselves – were all left asking the same question: How did it ever get to be so bad? And since then, the answers have hardly changed.
This essay is not meant to be a condemnation of drug companies a hundred years ago or drug companies now. Rather, this essay will explore the fascinating history of narcotics in American medicine. In the text to follow, we shall see how virtually every illicit substance – from heroin to cocaine, from methamphetamine to marijuana – traces its lineage through addicted America to the doctors and pharmacies of yesteryear. Even hallucinogens like LSD and MDMA, which have yet to prove any bona fide medicinal benefits, originated in tests aiming to cure cerebral or psychological disorders. Then, briefly we will explore the events that helped bring the dangers of such narcotic-based medicines into public awareness, and the policies enacted to pull those drugs – and the addicts tied to them – under control. And finally, we will examine the lessons learned by those previous generations of patent drug abusers and apply them to the problems surrounding prescription drugs today.
Here we will discuss the medicinal backgrounds of each drug, one by one. We will do it with one foot in the present and one eye to the future, just like all investigations of past epidemics should be conducted, lest history ever repeat itself. Or, at least in the case of addiction, more than it already has.
By far the most frequently used base narcotic in American medicine – both in the past and present – is opium. Even during colonial times, opium was slowly becoming viewed as a panacea for its treatment of headaches, nausea, depression, diarrhea, gout, and many more common ailments. It was granulated for oral use, powdered finely and then sprinkled into open wounds, and tinctured and mixed with other liquids, most commonly alcohol – a common pain-reliever known as laudanum often enjoyed by Benjamin Franklin.5
At the beginning of the 19th century, the world was still many years away from fully understanding the true nature of opium consumption, despite its wide usage. That began to change in 1821 when Thomas de Quincey published his seminal work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The book propelled de Quincey to international fame for its revelations on opium dependency. In it, the author describes his introduction to the drug in its laudanum form while studying at Oxford University – the euphoria and even good fortunes surrounding his initial courtship with the drug, and then the nightmare plummet that followed with addiction. In his chapter titled, “The Pains of Opium,” de Quincey outlines some of the horrific symptoms accompanying his growing dependency, including insomnia, visions, fevers, and bone-rattling pain. But, ironically and unfortunately, it was the preceding chapter, “The Pleasures of Opium,” that seemed to have more of an effect on the reading public. In the chapter, de Quincey describes eight whole years of tranquil (de Quincey invented the word tranquilizer) association with the drug, eight years in which he felt the “hopes of his youth” and saw his writing ability and career prospects continue to brighten. One of the most famous passages from the book reads:
“Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! That to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! That with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for on night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood…”6
In the first few years to follow the book’s publication, it was these positive appraisals of opium that resonated with the public more than those bad, and laudanum’s popularity actually increased in America. Aspiring artists were inspired by opium’s apparent boost to de Quincey’s career, as well as those subsequent boosts promulgated by poets Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, and began to view laudanum as the great writer’s muse.7 And of course, convenient for them and other inspired users, opium was an increasingly omnipresent feature in American drugstores and catalogues. All throughout the 19th century, citizens living across the expanding United States frequently drank laudanum. The drink even had a boom in the frontier west, where such notorious figures as Doc Holliday and Urilla Earp were said to be addicted self-medicators.
Opium would continue its steady rise in popular medicine throughout the early and mid 19th century. Additional, more flavorful, variations of the narcotic were developed, including Quaker’s Black Drop, an opium-based lozenge, and Dr. Barton’s “brown mixture,” which combined opium with licorice.8 But in the tail-end of the century, a series of dramatic events – some of them unforeseen, others long-in-coming – rocked the nation and changed American medicine – and opium’s stronghold within it – forever.
The first and most powerful event was the outbreak of the Civil War, which in effect helped introduce the United States to morphine and the syringe. The first, morphine, was developed in 1803 by German chemist Friedrich Sertuerner when he isolated the pain-relieving alkaloid from opium.9 Sertuerner named his analgesic after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams and sleep.10 Morphine was instantly praised for its rapid effectiveness in treating pain and for inducing relaxation in surgery patients. It was also at first thought to be non-habit-forming, and by as early as 1832 firms such as Merck, Sharpe and Dohme in Philadelphia were manufacturing morphine salts for sale to the general public.11 But in 1853, another ground-breaking invention was unveiled to both doctors and consumers alike: the hypodermic needle. Using a syringe, morphine could now be injected directly into the bloodstream and course its way to the brain in a fraction of the amount of time at that of oral consumption. Amusingly enough, syringes were also thought to reduce the risk of addiction since the drug bypassed the digestive tract.12
So it was that between 1861 and 1865, as hundreds of thousands of Americans lay dying in battlefields, or else agonizingly maimed in army hospitals, morphine injections soon became as commonplace as marching formations and rifle smoke. Throughout the duration of the war, an estimated 400,000 soldiers in the Northern Army alone found themselves addicted to morphine.13 Morphine addiction became popularly known as, “the soldier’s disease,” and upon returning home these addicted ex-soldiers were thought to spread the demand throughout the citizenry.14 A near-identical epidemic struck Europe a few years later during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.15 Before long, “the soldier’s disease” became ““morphineomania.”
In the 1870s mass shipments of morphine and raw opium reached American shores with unheralded regularity, and soon there arrived yet another invention poised to secure its place in American medicine cabinets. In 1874 the London chemist C. R. Wright boiled morphine in order to synthesize yet another potent opium derivative: diacetylmorphine. The chemical is later refined by German company Bayer, and eventually introduced to consumers under the brand name Heroin.16 Heroin is marketed to drug stores as a cheap and remarkably effective over-the-counter drug capable of curing all forms of aches, pains, nauseas, bronchial problems, sleep disorders, and even “over reliance on morphine.”17 The drug quickly becomes Bayer’s best-selling product, dwarfing even Aspirin, and the company is soon offering Heroin as a powder, in lozenge form, in salts, tablets, and, eventually, in liquid vials for hypodermic injection. Naturally, Americans succumb to a new style of addiction. In 1879, after observing the rampant overuse of heroin injection, Dr. Robert Bartholow wrote an article titled The Hypodermic Method, in which he declared:
“The introduction of the hypodermic has placed in the hands of man a means of intoxication more deductive than any which has heretofore contributed to his craving for narcotic stimulation. So common now are the instances of habitual use, and so enslaving is the habit when indulged in by this mode, that a lover of mankind must regard the future with no little apprehension.”18
Other events surrounding opium’s ascension within American pharmacology and addiction include the Cholera and dysentery epidemics that spread from Europe to eastern America late in the century and which were treated with morphine, as well as the aggressive advertising campaigns and anti-legislation lobbying efforts conducted by the patent drug companies.19
Over a hundred years later, even more opiate-based medicines have been developed, relentlessly advertised, lobbied for, and once again over-used by patients who find them the easiest, albeit temporary, ways to relieve symptoms big and small.
In the mid 1800s, European scientists isolated the active constituent of the coca leaf, Erthroxlyn coca, and later named the substance cocaine. Almost immediately, pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Parke & Davis seized upon this fast-acting and relatively-inexpensive stimulant and began developing new products around it. Sales soared. The population devoured cocaine and hailed it as a wonder drug. Merck and other companies marketed cocaine as a cure for sinusitis, lethargy, reoccurring pains, and alcoholism and opium-dependency. It was sold as a tonic, lozenge, powder, and laced in cigarettes. In the 1890s, the Sears Roebuck catalogue featured a syringe and vial of cocaine for a dual bargain of $1.50.20 Medical journals at the time suggested its regular use for an array of common ailments, and all but advised unlimited intakes.21 Cocaine became one of the most popular treatments prescribed by doctors to veterans suffering from “the soldier’s disease,” and neurologist and former U.S. Army Surgeon General William Hammond proclaimed to take a dose with every meal and eventually announced cocaine as the official remedy of the Hay Fever Association.22
Because cocaine, like most narcotics around the turn of the century, was hardly limited to a doctor’s prescription, men, women, and even children from every societal class took to the drug. In certain dry states, bars began serving hits of cocaine in lieu of alcohol, while in wet states bartenders gladly mixed the drug into shots of whisky for requesting customers.23 Businesses, most famously construction and mine companies, were even known to supply cocaine to their workers to help them work at fever pitch and with little food.24 In 1878, a maker of opiate liver pills from Atlanta named John Pemberton began mixing coca leaves with wine to make what he called French Wine Coca. Soon after this, Pemberton modified his drink, adding caffeine from the kola nut, and renamed the final product Coca Cola. With that, Pemberton let his formula be, and would not change it until 1906 when mounting public and federal pressure forced him to.25
But it was not just cocaine’s increasingly flavorful and cheap byproducts that so attracted the general public, for by 1900 some of the world’s most influential figures had come forward to confer their great enthusiasm for the drug. At the time, cocaine was endorsed by such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, and Pope Leo XIII.26 Even some of popular culture’s most celebrated fictional characters could not escape its grasp. In the 1880s, possibly as a reflection of his own traits, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the world to his detective Sherlock Holmes with Holmes possessing a distinct quirk which was by that time shared by many of his readers. In the first few stories, Holmes fought his depression with frequent injections of cocaine. Sometimes, while stuck in the middle of some particularly trying case, Holmes would cry out, “Quick, Watson, the needle!”27
But perhaps history’s most famously-adamant supporter of cocaine was Sigmund Freud. As a young physician in Vienna in 1884, Freud was barely making a living. That year however, Freud discovered cocaine, and with it what he considered the miracle drug that would improve all of man’s existence. That year he wrote to his future wife Martha:
“If all goes well, I will write an essay on it [cocaine] and I expect it will win its place in therapeutics by the side of morphine and superior to it… I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success.”28
Around this time, pharmaceutical companies had succeeding in further concentrating cocaine into a substance called cocaine hydrochloride, which was reportedly “tens to hundreds of times more powerful.”29 Freud read all the articles relating to the cocaine refinement process, along with all other medical journals devoted to cocaine usage – the vast majority of which were in praise of the drug – and set out to write what he hoped would be the final say in cocaine literature. The result was Uber Coca, a report 70 pages-long detailing the great potential of cocaine, including as a cure for morphine dependency.30 Some time after this, Freud successfully weaned one of his close friends from morphine addiction to cocaine addiction.31
Like the poppy and the coca leaf, cannabis has been in medicinal use for thousands of years but did not become a fixture upon drugstore shelves until the mid 1800s. At first, marijuana was most commonly ingested within a tincture of alcohol, but was soon converted into other forms like pills and cigarettes after its healing qualities grew to wider report. Much like today, medicinal marijuana in the late 19th century was used to treat such ailments as anxiety, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, arthritis, glaucoma, migraines, and seizures.32 It was also given to laboring mothers to help promote relaxation and ease contractions during deliveries.33
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, hundreds of articles were written on the medicinal benefits to be derived from cannabis. In his celebrated 1915 textbook, Sir William Osler – often called “the father of modern medicine” – hailed marijuana as “the best treatment for migraines.”34 In fact, from 1850 to 1937, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia listed marijuana as the primary treatment for over a hundred different ailments.35 Dr. John Russell Reynolds, personal physician to Queen Victoria, prescribed cannabis to all the royal family for more than thirty years and in 1890 wrote in the medical journal The Lancet that marijuana is “…one of the most valuable medicines known to man.”36
Gradually however, the American taste for marijuana shifted from that of a medicinal palette to one recreational. This likely started as early as 1857 with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s book The Hasheesh Eater. Modeled after de Quincey’s memoir on opium, Ludlow recounts his own experiments with hashish – experiments that compared to opium were comparatively free of consequence.37 Soon, un-manufactured, homegrown hashish started to replace the marijuana-based medicines produced by pharmaceutical companies. In the 20th century, as more and more citizens began to consume marijuana for clearly recreational purposes and when the drug began to be identified with artists, musicians, and, worse, the black community, marijuana was first taxed and then eventually banned from society in all its forms. The drug would later resurrect itself in American medicine, although only in prescription form, and otherwise remains heavily regulated despite being one of the very few psychoactive drugs – legal or no – to be both physically non-habit-forming and incapable of inducing overdose.
Amphetamine in the decades following its synthesis in 1887 in a German laboratory has been described as “a drug in search of a disease.”38 It was not until 25 years later that amphetamine was used medically to treat asthma, and only after that did American doctors begin researching serious medical applications for the drug. In 1932, amphetamine was first introduced commercially as an over-the-counter inhalant called Benzedrine. Soon after, amphetamines were being used to treat a wide array of disorders, including depression, obesity, narcolepsy, congestion, epilepsy, schizophrenia, enuresis, migraines, and alcoholism.39 It was during this time that Benzadrine began to be widely abused as both the Depression and Prohibition forced citizens to seek other forms of escape.40
In 1919, a more concentrated and potent version of amphetamine was developed in Japan called methamphetamine. Methamphetamine – a crystalline powder – was relatively cheap and simple to produce, and because it was also soluble in water it could be injected.41 During World War II, methamphetamine was dispersed to soldiers on both sides of the line to promote alertness and fight fatigue, and after the war’s close amphetamine addiction ran rampant in Japan after piled military supplies of the drug were released to the public.42 Less than thirty years later, methamphetamine was once more used by American fighting men in Vietnam, and like an evolved virus “the soldier’s disease” struck again (heroin addiction also hit epidemic proportions among American GIs in Vietnam).43
In the years between the two wars, amphetamines were further manipulated into more specially-marketed drugs, including Dexadrine for depression or lethargy, and Ritalin for attention and learning disorders. Such drugs became so popular late in the 20th century that some educators came to refer to the “three Rs” as “reading, writing, and Ritalin.”44 In the new millennium, amphetamine use and abuse, as well as the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine, are at all time highs.
In 1938, with the goal of discovering a remedy for migraines, two Swiss chemists extracted lysergic acid from an ergot – a type of fungus commonly found in grains.45 The chemists added a diethylamine molecule to the acid and named it LSD 25. Some years later, one of the chemists, Dr. Albert Hofmann, accidentally ingested some of his chemical, and the rest is history.
LSD never did prove a cure for migraines, but throughout the 20th century scientists would continue medical research on the drug, each time with varying hopes on treating psychiatric disorders, alcoholism, impotence, autism, and depression.46 Very few tests resulted with much promise, although in 1959 Cary Grant did report to Look magazine that LSD psychotherapy sessions had single-handedly brought happiness back into his life.47
MDMA was first developed early in the 20th century by pharmaceutical giant Merck, although at the time the company only used the chemical as an intermediate for other drugs.48 Upon further investigation however, MDMA was found to be a rare compound enveloping both hallucinogenic and stimulant properties, and was briefly considered for use as a diet aid.49 MDMA was all but forgotten since around the time of its invention and all the way until the 1980s when researchers began experiments similar to those conducted with LSD in which MDMA was applied to psychotherapy. But, also like LSD, the adverse effects outweighed any positive, and MDMA was given up on by the medical field and picked up by the illicit market. Only in recent years have researchers expressed any new hope that MDMA may in fact contain medicinal potential, this time in treating cancer.
Medicines or Intoxicants
From the base organics – opium, coca, cannabis – to the more obscure synthetics – MPTP, Quaaludes, PCP – almost all of America’s narcotics have their origins as pharmaceuticals. Today, some of the country’s most heavily abused substances are prescription drugs, their active ingredients often deriving from such drugs as opium, cocaine, and amphetamine, signaling an epidemic alarmingly similar to that which swept the populace more than a hundred years ago.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 313,000 out of the total 76 million living in America were addicted to opiates alone.50 Of those 313,000, two-thirds were women, a result of the male physician’s over-tendency to prescribe opium for relief of gynaecological issues and mood disorders.51 Women were even encouraged to be sure and take healthy doses of opium during menstruation periods in order to ease cramps and stress. From a broader perspective, this example was just one of many demonstrating the medical negligence that helped produce so many addicts in the 19th century – a negligence that, as new drugs emerged, seems to have never gone away.
According to David F. Musto in his book, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control:
…if the physician could not effect cure, he could assuage pain and apprehension: opiates were preeminent for these functions and were apparently used with great frequency. Drugs are still overused in this casual, convenient way – penicillin, the sulfas, tetracycline, barbiturates, and son on – they carry a message of effective treatment to the patient, fulfilling his emotional needs even if sometimes risky and superfluous from an objective viewpoint.52
Late in the 19th century, as the public grew aware of the addiction epidemic that had somehow spread right before their eyes, professionals finally began to reevaluate the true benefits of psychoactive drugs. The British Medical Journal retracted its previous unrestrained endorsement of cocaine in medical practice, and Sigmund Freud, upon witnessing the deterioration of his friend as he moved from opium to cocaine dependency, revised his Uber Coca.53 Similarly, beginning in the 1980s and continuing to now, doctors have reconsidered their readiness to prescribe such symptom-blanketing drugs as Hydrocodone and Valium which, when addiction inadvertently sets in, ultimately produce more harm than good.
Along with public awareness came public outcry for federal regulation of the patent drug industry. During the late 19th century, this growing demand met with a powerful counterforce by the drug industry. In fact, by the turn of the century, patent medicine companies had become the largest advertisers in all U.S. print media, and using their immense financial and marketing arms, effectively blocked any banishment or labeling requirements of their products for at least another decade.54 Finally, in 1906 the U.S. passed the original Pure Food and Drug Act which amounted to the first official action taken by the government to protect drug consumers and require certain foods and medicines to disclose potentially-harmful ingredients on the labels of their products. Still, this new transparency did little to slow sales of, or addiction to, items like opium and cocaine, and neither did the 1909 Act to Prohibit the Importation and Use of Opium for Other Than Medicinal Purposes, which mainly just forced opium abusers out of smoking dens and into neighborhood drugstores. It was not until the Harrison Act of 1914 did narcotic abuse actually see a sharp decline. The Act, which did not completely outlaw narcotics like heroin and cocaine, required that to obtain the drug one must do it through the prescription of a licensed physician.55
But, as recent decades have demonstrated, limiting narcotics to prescriptions does not eradicate abuse. In many instances, particularly in cases where the drug is improperly or over-prescribed, abuse is actually fueled. As this brief examination of history suggests, mankind’s affinity for psychoactive drugs – whether obtained illicitly or medically – will likely never be cured. But, as history also shows, it can be tempered. Just like the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Harrison Act of the early 20th century demonstrate, the will of the public is capable of overcoming Big Pharmacy and addiction itself. In more recent years, acts like The Combat Meth Act of 2005 have effectively limited the sale of potential meth ingredients to consumers.
The future has yet to tell what further policies and programs will be required to quell what appears to be a centurial pattern of pharmaceutical misuse. For now, as it did around the dawn of the 20th century, the line between medicine and abused substance remains thin. And probably it always will.
1 M. Liebowitz. The Chemistry of Love (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1983), 208.