Learning from the Past – How the Opioid Epidemic Compares with Past Drug Crises

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic as a national emergency, saying that nobody has witnessed anything like what’s happening in the current opioid crisis before. But how close to the truth is that statement.

It is true that the current crisis is the most widespread problem with substance abuse that America has seen with reports of over 64,000 people dying in 2016 from drug overdoses, according to data from the CDC. However, many of the past drug crises share many similarities with the current drug epidemic in the United States.

The 1800s

Similar to today’s opioid epidemic causes, past drug epidemics were initially spurred on by physicians together with pharmaceutical companies that pushed drugs onto the public that were meant to help but were in fact dangerous and addictive.

The 1800s saw opium rise to become a drug epidemic in the United States. It was given to people who had trouble sleeping and severe pain. It was quickly abused and smoked in opium dens by people referred to as “opium fiends”.

Morphine was then introduced – a drug derived from opium – during the Civil War. Morphine became known as “the army disease” by some due to the many soldiers who became addicted to it.

In an effort to treat morphine addictions, heroin and cocaine were introduced. Cocaine was added to many over-the-counter medications for conditions as mild as sinuses. Even soda and wine companies added cocaine to their products because of the energizing effects it had. Heroin was given without prescription to treat anything from respiratory problems to flu. Both were quickly abused.

Early 1900s

Cocaine and heroin became available only as a prescription due to the addiction problems that were surfacing. A stigma began about cocaine users and historians believe it is in part credited for the decline in abuse at the time. Driving the drugs underground also raised prices and with the start of the Great Depression, few had disposable income to support a drug habit. World War II also greatly reduced the supply of heroin and cocaine into the country. These factors helped relieve the drug crisis.

Mid-19th Century

By the mid-19th century, alcohol and cigarettes became the primary addictions in the United States and the highest cause of preventable deaths. During this time, many other drug outbreaks occurred including amphetamines in the 1950s.

Amphetamines were initially marketed as anxiety and weight loss medication. The addictive properties soon led to its abuse and a group of addicts known as “speed freaks” who injected the drug. Even other heroin and marijuana users considered speed freaks to be outcasts. Regulations were put into place in the 1970s and together with the stigma, abuse soon declined.

At the same time, heroin use surged again, affecting inner-city neighborhoods the most. President Nixon declared “war on drugs” by 1971 but the efforts to beat substance abuse fell short.

Late 19th Century to Today

Heroin use was in a slow decline while cocaine made a comeback, this time as the harder version of the drug, “crack”. Misinformation about the dangers of the drug led to its abuse. This was followed by the term “crackheads” – stigma that turned people off the drug, along with stricter regulations.

In today’s opioid epidemic, an estimated 1 in 133 people are addicts compared to 1 in 300 in the 1900s. It started with OxyContin – a drug that like morphine and cocaine is meant to be a safer alternative to other opioids. Just like the cocaine and opioid epidemic causes of the past, misinformation on the dangers of the drug coupled with physicians and pharmaceutical companies pushing the drugs has in part led to the current opioid epidemic.

The opioid epidemic, as with the past epidemics, will require changes to be made before positive results will be seen. Find help for addiction by calling WhiteSands Treatment Centers at (877) 855-3470.

If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.