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Opiate Drug Use in the United States:

At the time of the advent of the morphine injection in 1856, raw opium had already been widely used for medical and nonmedical purposes in the United States for well over a century. Both opium smoking and laudanum drinking had been popular among colonists before the Revolutionary War, and patented, nonprescription medicines containing raw opium had been available and widely used since the late 1700s. The use of raw opium did not subside with the advent of morphine injections and morphine-based nonprescription medicines. Instead, raw opium was featured in a growing number of patented nonprescription medicines, including such general remedies as "Dr. Barton's Brown Mixture," and "Dover's Powder," as well as the very popular "Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup," for teething babies.

Various opium-based concoctions that promised to cure alcoholism were very popular, as were the many alcohol-based concoctions that promised to cure the opium addiction that resulted. In reality, however, many so-called remedies for opium addiction actually contained opium as a main ingredient—a fact that went unnoticed by users because the listing of product contents on labels was not yet required by U.S. law. Also contributing to opium addiction in America during the last quarter of the century was the fact that laudanum drinking had become highly fashionable among men, and opium smoking had grown increasingly popular among women, since society considered alcohol use to be improper for them.

The Civil War had also contributed significantly to the widespread use of raw opium in the United States. Between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 10 million opium pills and an additional 2 million ounces of raw opiates were distributed to Union forces alone, with a roughly equivalent amount going to the Confederate forces. Consequently, thousands of wounded and traumatized soldiers from both sides began to suffer from opium addiction—a condition then referred to as "army disease" or "soldier's disease." Also, the war provided America with ample opportunity to use the new morphine injection, and it was highly effective in treating the pain and dysentery that were a constant on the battlefield. Off the battlefield, morphine injections were used as treatment for the opium withdrawal experienced by soldiers, as well as for the emotional trauma experienced by the families of disabled and killed soldiers. Of course, these treatments only served to compound the nation's growing opium problem, and addiction to injected morphine quickly rivaled that of raw opium. "After the war," author Charles F. Levinthal writes, "thousands of ex-soldiers continued to use [morphine] for these purposes, and they recommended it to friends and relatives. The United States Pension Bureau had difficulties with large numbers of veterans suffering from the 'army disease' . . . until well into the twentieth century."Predictably, the demand for patented medicines containing morphine rose after the war, and physicians recommended these medicines not only to veterans of the war, but also to the general public as a cure-all for the wide variety of ailments for which there were not yet legitimate medical treatments. "A popular medical textbook in 1880 listed fifty-four diseases that could be treated with morphine injections," notes Levinthal, "ranging from anemia and angina pectoris through diabetes, nymphomania, and ovarian neuralgia, to tetanus, vaginismus, and morning sickness."Not all doctors sanctioned the use of morphine as a panacea, however, including John Witherspoon, a noted physician who eventually became the president of the American Medical Association. "Ah, Brothers!" Witherspoon cautions his colleagues, "we, the representatives of the grandest and noblest profession in the world . . . must . . .warn and save our people from the clutches of this hydra-headed monster.

. . . The morphine habit is growing at an alarming rate, and we can not shift the responsibility, but must acknowledge that we are culpable in too often giving this seductive siren until the will power is gone."

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