A short history of getting high

When did our relationship with drugs first begin? Think back to the beginning of recorded history... and then some!
15 August 2016

Interview with 

Mike Jay, Author


Mind altering substances have long been part of cultures all over the world  - so Drinking wine from barrelwhen did our love-affair with these substances begin? Georgia Mills spoke to historian and writer Mike Jay, for a trip through history.

Mike - It's hard to say when people first started taking drugs because it goes way back before recorded history

 It seems very likely that taking drugs was something we were doing before we were 'human.' If you look at animals, there are lots of animals that take drugs for medical reasons; they turn poisonous grass to kill intestinal parasites, for example, but there are also lots of animals who seek out intoxicating drugs. Cats for example, chewing catnip, birds or elephants who will go long distances to seek out fermented rotting fruit and eat it in large quantities and get drunk. And when you get closer to humans, apes and monkeys for example, use all kinds of drugs in the wild so it's highly likely, I think, that this was something we were doing before we became human and that would explain why pretty much every human culture, throughout history and around the world, has used intoxicating drugs in some form.

Georgia - When did the first archaeological evidence for drug use start to appear?

Mike - There's archaeological evidence for the use of drugs going back thousands of years. In the Americas, for example, there are dried quids of chewed coca leaves containing cocaine which seem to go back several thousand years, maybe ten thousand years. By about four thousand years ago, you're starting to find artifacts like pipes made out of hollowed out animal bones, which have residues of intoxicating plants and seeds in them. And in the old world, in Europe and Asia, the oldest evidence is for the use of opium, opium heads, and dried poppy heads. And then, at the very beginning of writing, Egyptian pipari, medical pipari like the Edus piparus, record the use of drugs. Then, when you get to the classical era, great literature, people like Diaz Scorsese writes about plants and drugs and pharmacy in great detail

Georgia - What clear is that people have been indulging for years - and for many different reasons. There's evidence people used them in spiritual and religious ceremonies, medically, and, much like today - to help stay awake or for social situations. The first evidence of advising against drug use came from ancient Egypt in 2000 BC, when priest, wrote to his pupil: "I, thy superior, forbid thee to go to the taverns. Thou art degraded like beasts.' But these kind of warnings haven't stopped drugs from spreading across the world.

Mike - The sort of global drug trade that we have now started really about 500 years ago, around the time of Columbus. If you go back before then you'd find a world where, in say Thailand or Malaysia, people are chewing beetle nut, and in the Andes they're chewing coca leaves, and in different parts of the world people are taking different things.

What you get from that point on is the beginning of global trade and is around the kinds of substances that we don't quite think of as drugs any more, but things like tobacco, and sugar, and tea, and coffee. The global network that emerged after the discovery of the Americas, about 500 years ago, you start to see these kinds of items traded, particularly things like tobacco and sugar that really made up the first layer of what we now regard as global trading routes.

Georgia - During the 19th century, scientists started extracting pure chemicals forms of chemicals from the natural drug. Cocoa leaf to cocaine. Opium to morphine. These drugs were seen as not luxuries or bad habits but medicine - It sounds bizarre, but you could go and get morphine from the local pharmacy. Cocaine was an ingredient in Coca-Cola until 1903. But slowly, it became clearer that these drugs could do some serious damage....

Mike - People started to realise by the mid-19th century when drugs were being used quite widely that substances like opium were dangerous; it was very easy to overdose on them. It was the same time that people started to be concerned about alcohol and the health consequences of alcohol, which led to the temperance movement and, eventually, to alcohol prohibition.

So, from about the mid-19th century, you start to get, initially, regulation like the Pharmacy Act in Britain in 1868, which stipulated that certain certain poisonous substances, including opium, could only be sold by registered dealers and so on. So that was the way in which drug use was controlled until pretty much exactly 100 years ago during the First World War in the Defence of the Realm Act. It was the first time Britain that substances like morphine and cocaine were prohibited from open sale and by that time you had, in the United States, the Harrison Act of 1914 which was an act that controlled the supply of narcotics. So the actual drugs as illegal banned substances - that story is about 100 years old now.


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