History of Opioid Use: This is Not America’s First Drug Epidemic

The History of Opioid Use in The 1800s

The news is full of stories of opioid abuse. Overdose deaths are on the rise, and the general populace is calling for action to end the epidemic that threatens to take thousands of lives or render them useless. Few are aware of the history of opioid use in the United States, but it began in the 1817, the year chemists found a way to isolate the alkaloid compound morphine from raw opium.

History of Opioid Use in the United States

According to historian David Courtwright, the first opioid epidemic was aided by the “widespread adoption of the hypodermic needle in the 1870s.” Previously, opiates were administered orally in the form of pills, powders, and tinctures. It is believed that fewer people were addicted before the hypodermic needle’s entrance on the scene because of unpleasant gastric side effects when the drug was taken orally. The history of opioid addiction in the United States begins with well-meaning physicians providing this new class of “wonder drugs” to patients with numerous aches and pains. Nathaniel Chapman believed opium to be the physician’s most useful drug as it relieved pain from all sources.

Introduction of the Hypodermic Needle

The hypodermic needle made it possible to deliver morphine directly into the vein. This method yielded immediate results without the gastric side effects. In his writings, Courtwright indicated a needle full of morphine was considered to be a magic wand. Doctors began injecting morphine for almost any pain. Women became addicts from using morphine for menstrual cramps. Civil War veterans became addicts while seeking pain relief from injuries. The post-war morphine abuse became known as “Soldier’s Disease” because of the large number who received it for battle injuries and became addicted. Warnings were given about the dangers of morphine, but few doctors listened. “Opium is often the lazy physician’s remedy,” said one doctor. There were many people hooked on opioid abuse during this era of history when doctors often left vials of morphine and needles with their patients.

The Epidemic Winds Down

As physicians began to realize they were enabling the spread of opioid addiction, the medical profession stepped in to help solve the problem. Medical schools taught the dangers associated with morphine and urged them not to prescribe it except in controlled situations. There were also new and milder analgesics available providing safer alternatives to morphine. The opioid epidemic history was coming to a close. The history of opioid addiction in the United States subsided as doctors began to police their own ranks. As the old addicts of the general population died, there were fewer new addicts to replace them. The new addicts came from the ranks of “pleasure seekers” who had connections to criminal elements.

The Past and the Present

The opioid epidemic history of the 1800s, while different than the present one, affected everyday people who looked for something to help them through the pain of arthritis, and everyday aches and pains. Today we understand how opioids work and the dangers they pose when a person becomes dependent on them. The leading cause for death of Americans under the age of 50 is drug overdose. Opioid death numbers are soaring and will soon rival the totals of people killed by car accidents, and guns. In 2015, 15,000 American’s died from opioid overdose, and in 2016 the total rose to near 60,000. The opioid epidemic history has now become the present, and organizations such as Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing are working to educate doctors on the dangers every prescription presents.