Drug abuse became an issue for the first time during and after the Civil
War. The fact that it is not an important part of history is significant
and an important lesson in itself. The problem was the abuse of morphine.
Morphine is the narcotic derived from opium, which is a product of the
Asian red poppy plant. It is many times more potent than raw opium. Scientists
had learned to produce the drug in the early 19th century. With the invention
of the hypodermic syringe, it was widely used during the Civil War. It could
then be injected directly into the bloodstream and had a potent and immediate
This was obviously important as a pain reliever for severely injured
soldiers. It was also used by the army to relieve diarrhea, which was rampant
The realities of addiction are not understood today, but people were
even much more naive about it in the 19th century. Soldiers continued to
use it after their physical wounds were healed. Some continued to use it
for diarrhea every day for months. There were those who went on to use it
to ease the terrible emotional effects of such a brutal war.
Addiction to morphine came to be known as the army disease or the soldiers
disease. When doctors became aware of the addiction, they were much more
cautious in its use.
Some of the veterans continued using morphine for the rest of their lives.
If they were unable to overcome the addiction, they were administered measured
doses and continued otherwise normal lives.
There were other people who used morphine regularly around the turn of
the century. Many upstanding citizens preferred it to alcohol for relaxation
and stress-relief. One of the most well known examples was Dr. John Hallsted,
the founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
An important key is use rather than abuse. This concept has been lost
with the drug war rhetoric. Just say no is simplistic, unrealistic, and
Anyone who has had major surgery or serious injury knows the importance
of morphine. Morphine has never been illegal or prohibited, but regulated
and controlled by the medical profession.
History Lesson #1: Morphine has never
been illegal, but has been controlled since the 19th century. It has not
caused any major social problems.