• Kloe Gentry

The ancient history of recreational drug use

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

A crop of white poppys
A crop of white poppys, from which opuim is derived

When we think of recreational drug use, it is hard not to frame it as anything but a modern problem. After all, most of the drugs that are being abused today have only been made available in recent times. It is odd to imagine an ancient Sumerian becoming stricken with sweat and convulsions because he had not smoked opium in a long time, yet it very well could of been the case. In fact, the Sumerian name for opium was hul gil, meaning "joy plant".

Ancient Greek medical texts are scattered with warnings on the addictive properties of opioids, suggesting that addiction was at least somewhat of a problem. Some ancient Greek physicians even went as far as outright forbidding the use of the drug, despite it's great value as a pain reliever.

"It is better to suffer pain than to become dependent on opium."

Diagoras of Melos, 3rd Century B.C.

The use of opium reached new heights in the time of the Roman empire. The ancient Romans took the drug for a wide variety of problems, including as treatment for constipation, pain and sleeping problems. Some would of certainly become addicted.

Most prominent of those may have been the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD). His physician, Claudius Galenus, prescribed him opioids to improve his mood and well being. Marcus soon begun to independently tweak his dosage, depending on his energy, mood and temper. He could expertly distinguish between low and high quality opioids. Historians speculate that many of his vivid dreams, of which he frequently wrote about, are a symptom of the opioid abuse.

Following the fall of the Roman empire, opium use fell into decline but was revived once again in the east by the Islamic Dynasties. The Muslims introduced it to China and India, where it flourished. The Swiss physician Paracelsus is credited for bringing back the drug to Europe in the 16th century.

Worth mentioning is another ancient & lesser known drug: Ephedra. Cultivated from the Alkaloids of the shrub plant, it is known for it's potent euphoric and stimulant properties, resembling that of adderall and meth. Today, the drug is frequently abused by athletes as a performance-enhancing drug. It has been shown to cause many cardiovascular defects. Since 2004 it can only be obtained in the USA with a doctors prescription, namely for the treatment of asthma and narcolepsy.

The oldest evidence for use of the plant was found in a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial in Northern Iraq. Because of it's effects, it is not unlikely that it was taken recreationly during antiquity. It may have been the main ingredient for the mysterious Soma- A ritual drink in ancient India that was used to promote feelings of exhilaration during religious ceremonies.

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