Substance Use History: From Ancient Rituals to Modern Challenges

What was the first drug used in history?

Substance use history is a complex aspect of human civilization, with roots extending back to ancient societies. This intricate history reflects the interplay between human culture, societal norms, and scientific advancements. Substance use evolution is not simply a linear progression but a multifaceted phenomenon influenced by diverse factors across different epochs.

You may wonder, “What was the first drug used in history?” Well, in ancient civilizations, substances were primarily employed for medicinal purposes or integrated into religious ceremonies. However, some historians, like Elizabeth D. Carney, indicate that substances such as alcohol were part of the culture. For example, in Macedonia, banquets, known as symposia, were common among the Macedonian elite, serving as a setting for political discussions, entertainment, and excessive wine consumption.

Global trade and empire expansion facilitated the spread of substances like alcohol, opium, peyote, hashish, and so on, diversifying their use and significance across cultures. This era laid the foundational understanding of substances, which has continuously evolved with scientific breakthroughs and significantly altered the production and consumption of substances. The synthesis of new drugs and commercialization of traditional substances increased their accessibility and variety, presenting challenges for public health.

Addiction and substance use history covers a vast timeline, with many societal changes and, above all, many challenges to overcome consumption and achieve sobriety. If you want to know more about this evolution, continue reading this blog by MAT Care Clinics.

Substance Use History: First Discussions

As previously mentioned, substance use has been present since the earliest historical records. But what is known about the abuse history impact? Well, some historians believed that the fall of the Roman Empire was in part because it was a culture known for its abundant consumption of wine.

Moreover, we can trace the earliest discussions on the possibility of addiction in history back to the philosopher Aristotle. However, his perspective differs from modern interpretations. Unlike modern thinkers who often attribute the blame solely to the substance itself, Aristotle focused on the individual’s willpower. He believed that a weakness of will rather than the inherent nature of the substance characterized alcoholism, which involves an excessive dependence on a substance. He coined the term ‘akrasia,’ translating to ‘incontinence of will.’ Essentially, Aristotle suggested that akratic individuals lacked the necessary self-control to refrain from excessive consumption of alcohol or other substances.

Punishments for Substance Use

Historically, authorities imposed harsh penalties on users of these substances. For instance, according to the National Library of Medicine, during the reign of the first Romanov tsar, Michael Fiodorovich, smokers risked having their lips cut off. At the same time, under the rule of the Ottoman sultan Murad IV, they faced beheading. In 1378, the Ottoman emir in Egypt, Soudoun Sheikhouni, took drastic measures to eradicate hashish use, including imprisoning or executing hashish farmers and pulling out the teeth of consumers found guilty.

These historical examples underscore a long-standing global pattern of employing severe legal penalties to control substance use. This approach reflects the societal and governmental inclination to address drug-related issues through punitive measures rather than therapeutic or rehabilitative strategies.

Recognition of Substance Dependence and Treatment

A founding father of the United States, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is often credited as one of the earliest proponents of the medical model for treating alcoholism. Rush undertook an educational campaign against the excessive consumption of distilled alcoholic beverages, was concerned about the health consequences, and published a seminal pamphlet titled “An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind” in 1784, which outlined his observations and theories about the adverse effects of alcohol, and the medical nature of addiction and the importance of education and compassionate care for those affected.

By spirits, I mean all those liquors which are obtained by distillation from the fermented juices or substances of any kind. These liquors were formerly used only in medicine. They now constitute a principal part of the drinks of many countries. Since the introduction of spiritous liquors into such general use, physicians have remarked that a number of diseases have appeared among us.”

Moving forward with his idea, during the 19th century, the Temperance Movement gained significant traction in Western countries, advocating abstinence from alcohol as a strategy to combat alcoholism. This movement represented a crucial shift in societal views on addiction, transitioning from seeing it as a moral failing to recognizing it as a medical condition that necessitated treatment.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the establishment of the first addiction treatment facilities, commonly referred to as inebriate asylums or sanatoriums, marked a significant step forward. These institutions aimed to provide medical care and rehabilitation for individuals grappling with alcoholism and other substance dependencies. However, these early approaches to treatment often involved harsh and ineffective methods, such as forced detoxification and an emphasis on moral reformation, which reflected the limited understanding of addiction at the time.

It was not until Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in 1935 that they introduced a less intrusive treatment with an innovative concept of peer support through its 12-step program. AA emphasized the importance of community and mutual assistance in recovery. The success of AA led to the proliferation of other mutual-help groups and underscored the significance of a supportive community in the recovery process.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Moreover, 20th-century society witnessed further progress in recognizing substance dependence as a medical disorder, propelled by advancements in modern psychiatry and psychology. In 1956, the American Medical Association officially recognized alcoholism as a “major medical problem,” paving the way for efforts to medicalize and reduce the stigma associated with dependence, and with the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 reinforced the legitimacy of alcohol use as a disease.

Strategies in Drug Policy

The prohibition of certain substances has been a common strategy employed by governments to control drug use. The most famous example in the United States is the Prohibition era (1920-1933), which sought to curb alcohol consumption but ultimately led to the rise of organized crime, speakeasies, and an increase in alcohol-related health problems.

Similarly, the “War on Drugs,” initiated in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon and intensified under subsequent administrations, represented another significant chapter in the history of substance prohibition. It aimed to reduce illicit drug use and drug-related crimes through strict drug laws and penalties. However, it contributed to mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system and did not effectively reduce drug use rates.

Opioid Crisis

Opioid Crisis

Continuing the development of substance use history, let’s talk about the opioid crisis, which represents one of the most pressing public health challenges in recent times. The crisis Originated in the late 1990s by overprescribing of opioid painkillers, aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies, and a lack of awareness of their addictive potential. This dangerous oversight led to an alarming spike in addiction rates, overdose incidents, and fatalities, marking a distressing trend that would continue into the 21st century.

As the crisis evolved, it saw a shift from prescription opioids to more illicit forms, such as heroin and, notably, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are significantly more potent and deadly. According to the CDC, most overdose deaths now involve opioids, with synthetic opioids playing a predominant role.

In response to the opioid crisis, there has been a significant focus on evidence-based practices in addiction treatment. Advances in neuroscience have led to a better understanding of how substances affect the brain, leading to the development of more effective pharmacological treatments. For example, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has shown considerable success in treating opioid addiction by using medications like methadone and buprenorphine to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, alongside counseling and behavioral therapies.

The Modernization of Substance Use

The modernization of society has led to profound shifts in the ways individuals use, perceive, and distribute substances. The relationship between humans and their substance use history has also evolved in response to societal stresses and traumas. This evolution reflects a broader understanding of how substances have been used not only for recreational purposes but also as mechanisms to cope with the challenges of life.

For instance, during the Civil War, soldiers on both sides of the conflict used morphine, an opiate derivative, to manage physical pain and the psychological stress of warfare. Morphine was widely available and became a standard method for treating injuries and the emotional toll of combat.

In more recent times, the complexity of modern life has continued to influence patterns of substance use. Today, individuals may turn to substances like alcohol, prescription medications, or recreational drugs not only for enjoyment or social reasons but also to alleviate the stresses, anxieties, and traumas of contemporary existence. The pressures of work, social expectations, economic instability, personal challenges, and co-occurring mental disorders drive some towards substance use as a temporary escape or relief from the risk of switching to more complex substances and dependence.

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MAT Care Clinics Supports Your Recovery Journey

Throughout this blog, we’ve explored the dynamic history of substance use, witnessing its evolution from ceremonial, ritualistic, or recreational use to a significant public health concern and a catalyst for criminal activity. However, it’s essential to recognize that this journey also brings positive advancements. These include improvements in research, more profound insights into the human mind, a more informed and empathetic society, and the development of effective treatments.

Nowadays, individuals struggling with substance dependence can access various programs focused not only on treating addiction symptoms but also on addressing the root causes that lead to substance use. Whether it’s in hospital centers, 12-step programs, or treatments like MAT, individuals can expect a more empathetic and scientifically evidenced approach.

At MAT Care Clinics, we utilize FDA-approved medications to treat substance abuse, such as alcohol and opioids, safely. Call us at (833) 622-0628 or visit our centers in Nashua and Manchester to obtain the resources and guidance necessary for successful recovery.

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