The History of Substance Abuse: An Overview of Impact

Dictionary page showcasing History, to demonstrate the history of substance abuse

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What is the Impact of Substance Abuse Across History? 

Substance abuse is an intricate, multifaceted issue that has plagued societies for centuries. However, to truly understand and address the challenges of addiction, it is essential to delve into the history of substance abuse. Factually, the human struggle with substances isn’t new, and more importantly, if you’re having trouble with substance abuse, you aren’t alone. However, this behavior is worth addressing as it can contribute to and exacerbate other conditions, including anxiety and depression. Hence, learning the history of substance abuse in the context of your wellness and staying healthy may offer more value than you think!  

The history of substance abuse suggests Alexander the Great delved into severe alcohol consumption after killing a possible associate, which might have unintentionally brought his life to an end. Other examples include civil war veterans who developed opioid use disorder (OUD) after taking the medication to treat various pain and ailments. Some celebrities and famous scientists also struggled with their substance abuse at times, further demonstrating the painful experience can be universal.

This blog by Integrative Healthcare Center offers readers an overview of the impact of substance abuse throughout history, from ancient use to how it alters our modern culture. We will also explore how we manage and treat substance use disorders today.

Understanding the history of substance abuse helps us comprehend the origins of addiction more clearly. Additionally, it encourages us to offer ourselves and others experiencing it compassion, knowing we aren’t the first to struggle. So, keep reading to learn about substance abuse through the ages and how our attitudes and approaches to it continue to progress for the better.

Click here for more information about Integrative Healthcare Center or to read other blogs about complex conditions and personal wellness.

The Ancients and Substance Use

Early evidence of consuming substances dates back many years, with ancient civilizations using various substances for medicinal and spiritual purposes. According to the Harm Reduction Journal, the earliest report of substance use is that of psychotropic plants by Neanderthals roughly 200 million years ago.

A founding father discussing addiction was likely Aristotle, whose philosophy leaned toward a belief that misusing substances is a moral failing or a personal choice. His view on overusing alcohol is that of a deficiency in willpower or “akrasia.” Aristotle felt that individuals in active addiction had to find responsibility to master their will and stop overindulging. Something he correctly recognized was that these behaviors were chronic and lifelong, just not for the same reasons we understand today.

A Punitive Approach to Treating Substance Abuse

Raising a toast in bygone years such as the middle ages

During ancient times, there were no restrictions on
substance use. However, as the Middle Ages progressed, regulations were introduced
to address substance abuse, often with severe punishments. For instance, the
Ottoman Empire imposed the death penalty for smoking, while Egypt punished
smoking hashish by extracting teeth. In the 13 colonies, laws were stringent,
with Massachusetts banning alcohol sales and making prolonged drinking a crime.


This historical approach focused on punishment rather than
treatment due to the medical and psychological limitations of the times. As
societies progressed, these ineffective punitive models gave way to the need
for better infrastructures and interventions to address addiction treatment

The Path Towards Recognition

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, substance abuse emerged as a significant societal concern. Americans were consuming whiskey at alarming rates, escalating from 5.8 gallons annually in 1790 to 7.1 gallons by 1830. Issues such as spousal abuse, fractured families, squandered wages, and inappropriate public behavior prompted reform movements to address these massive public and familial concerns.

Amid the era’s culture and medical advances, a pivotal realization took hold. Experts began to consider that substance abuse could not be eliminated through punishment alone but required treatment. Dr. Magnus Huss, a Swedish physician, introduced the term “alcoholism,” acknowledging the physical ramifications of addiction.

Nevertheless, this period also witnessed unethical experiments and ineffective remedies. Often, these dangerous practices proved to do more harm than the addiction itself. Particularly concerning was the prevalent use of morphine and opiates to combat alcohol dependence.

Additionally, accessing aid for substance use challenges became an ongoing obstacle for the general population, with extreme treatment options limited to asylums, poorhouses, or prisons where individuals didn’t always receive proper care. Meanwhile, the affluent could afford exclusive treatment and seclusion for addiction recovery.

A First Revolution in Substance Abuse Treatment

The concept of a “sober house” was first proposed by American founding father and doctor Benjamin Rush, who believed in treating substance abuse through religious and moral guidance. This notion gained traction, leading to the establishment of inebriated homes and asylums in the mid-19th century. In 1870, institution managers formed the Association for the Cure of Inebriation (AACI).

The AACI introduced a treatment program known as “detoxification,” involving abrupt cessation, also called going cold turkey. Treatment could involve gradual withdrawal using substances like cocaine, cannabis, chloral hydrate, and belladonna. When patients could regain control over their cravings, they began receiving nourishing meals, fluids, exercise, and sunlight to restore their health. Despite the unconventional methods, this approach aimed to address substance abuse as a medical concern.

However, this era of treatment was short-lived due to the rise of temperance movements that viewed addiction as a moral weakness. This shift led to punitive measures taking precedence over treatment, culminating in the U.S. alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. In 1914, the Harrison Act restricted physicians from prescribing opioids and cocaine for addiction. The focus shifted from treatment to criminalization, resulting in the closure of morphine clinics by 1925 and the decline of alcoholism treatment options by 1930.

A More Professional and Compassionate Approach to Substance Use Disorders

Recognizing the limited options for individuals struggling with alcoholism, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith introduced Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, which gained significant popularity. The foundational six principles they laid down later transformed into the well-known 12-step program.

In the 1950s, three Minnesota hospitals introduced the “Minnesota Model,” emphasizing respect for the individual with addiction and a departure from stigmatization. This approach marked a notable professionalization of treatment, viewing addiction as a progressive disease necessitating comprehensive care. This model included individual and group counseling, a 28-day residential program, and medication as needed, alongside a structured 12-step regimen.

Later, the criminal justice system observed these advancements in understanding addiction and integrated mandatory drug rehabilitation initiatives. Subsequently, various treatment modalities have emerged, ranging from pharmacological interventions to community-centered programs.

Following the success of A.A., Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) was established. It implemented similar strategies that remain popular globally today and continue to expand with other umbrella groups.

Today, most treatment models embrace a contemporary perspective on addiction, acknowledging it as a medical condition rather than a moral shortcoming and offering hope for recovery.

Substance Abuse in Modern Times

The modern era has also seen a shift in public health policies and attitudes towards substance abuse. Harm reduction strategies have gained popularity, focusing on minimizing the negative, long-term consequences of substance use rather than abstaining completely. The adoption of needle exchange services and safe injection sites signals a more solution-oriented and pragmatic approach to addiction.

Additionally, a sober, curious movement has sparked an age where individuals feel empowered to reexamine their relationships with mood-altering substances. In this movement, the participants don’t always identify with substance abuse but rather practice different versions of sobriety to enhance their overall personal wellness.

Understanding the History of Substance Abuse Can Improve Your Mental Wellness and More

By examining how societal attitudes and policies have shaped progression and the perception of substance use over time, we gain a much better understanding of addiction that fosters more optimized pathways to healing. Moreover, it breaks down barriers to genuine recovery.

Finally, engaging with the history of substance abuse is also helpful for many because it highlights the continuous need for a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to treating substance abuse conditions that can fuel anxiety and depression at times. Because ultimately, there is always time to reclaim your life.

More about Healing with Integrative Healthcare Center

Integrative Healthcare Center in Nashua, NH, offers comprehensive care for those experiencing challenging conditions, including anxiety and depression, that can lead to substance misuse with innovative approaches like TMS, biofeedback, and more. Our team of experts believes in combining groundbreaking treatments with empathetic understanding in the fight against addiction and mental health disorders.

If you are struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, Call Integrative Healthcare Center via this online link or by calling us at 855- 599-9987.

The lessons of the past have also taught us the value of reaching out for support and seeking treatment.

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