Drugs are one of those things that always strike an immediate reaction when
they're mentioned. Many people, having been brought up on school programs and
anti-drug campaigns, instinctively back away from the subject. Risk-takers, on
the other hand, might lean a little closer. In any case, it's a subject that
everyone has some kind of opinion about. And most people can at least agree that
harmful side effects—addiction, mental issues, and physical health problems—do
exist and that there was some reason the government decided banning these drugs
would be a good idea.
But what about before they were banned? It's pretty rare for something to be
created to be something awful, and to get banned immediately upon its first
production. So what was it that the illegal drugs we're all familiar with were
intended for? And how is it that they all ended up being illegal? Below are 15
drugs you probably didn't know had positive uses up until the government
concluded that the negative effects outweighed them.
Opium has existed since 3400 B.C., when the opium poppy
was first cultivated in Mesopotamia. Even back then, it was known to have
euphoric effects, and the Mesopotamians called it Hul Gil, or the “joy plant.”
When it got to ancient Greece, Hippocrates declared that it didn't have any
magical abilities, but that it was useful as a narcotic and styptic for treating
various diseases. By the first few centuries A.D., opium was widely available
practically everywhere in Europe and Asia. Because of its popularity in Asia,
opium became a taboo subject in Europe during the Inquisition, as anything
strongly linked to the East was considered evil. It was reintroduced during the
In 1729, Yung Cheng, the Chinese emperor declared opium illegal except for
specific medicinal uses, making China the first country to officially make opium
prescription-only. In 1799, emperor Kia King banned opium completely, cutting
off what had been a fairly thriving opium trade. In 1839, the officer in charge
of suppressing opium traffic demanded that all foreign traders surrender their
opium, which led to the First Opium War between Britain and China.
The first ban on opium in the US was in San Francisco in 1874. Opium was not
allowed to be used within city limits, and was confined to opium dens in the
neighboring Chinatowns. It was banned by the US Congress in 1905, after a
lengthy discussion of medical uses and addictive effects coming to the
conclusion that even though people had used it for a few thousand years, it
really wasn't safe.
Methamphetamine, known by a variety of other names, including meth, ice,
crystal, and speed, is a psycho stimulant. When taken in low doses, it improves
the user's energy and concentration. In higher doses, it causes mania, euphoria,
and high self-esteem, but also a high level of aggression.
While amphetamines in general were first synthesized in 1887, the
methamphetamine variant was created in 1919 to counteract fatigue. Following the
timeline published by healthvermont.gov, we see that methamphetamine started
being used by doctors in the US in the 1930's as a treatment for asthma and
In World War II, it was given to pilots to help them to keep them awake on
long flights, but that was abandoned once people noticed that the pilots got
irritable and aggressive. In the 1950's it was common to pop “pep pills”
whenever someone needed to stay awake. They were even marketed as a weight loss
supplement. In the 1960's, injections of methamphetamine were prescribed by
doctors, ironically, as a treatment for heroin addiction. That was also when
some subcultures started cooking the drug and abusing it.
It was banned under the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970's. In 1996,
Congress passed the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act. In addition to
methamphetamine being illegal, it also became illegal to buy the ingredients
that could be used to make it without showing you had a specific and legitimate
purpose for buying them.
Peyote is a type of cactus that peyote.com calls “the prototype of the New
World hallucinogens.” Its use was already well established in Native American
cultures when various settlers started arriving, and no one could completely
stamp it out. To this day, peyote is still used in certain Native American
rituals, despite it being a controlled substance in the US. Recent
archaeological findings indicate that the use of peyote is at least 3000 years
old, putting it pretty close to on par with opium.
In the seventeenth century, Spanish Jesuits observed Mexican Indians using
peyote for rituals and medicine, reporting that the people who used it saw
“horrible visions.” They thought it should be forbidden even to use medicinally
because it was used to create “diabolic fantasies” and contact evil spirits. In
an attempt to dissuade the use of the drug, a priest in 1760 published a list of
questions for drilling converts, which included “Have you eaten Peyote?” among
other questions about various things the church thought were bad, including
being a cannibal, a witch, or a vampire.
Peyote was banned in the Controlled Substances Act of 1965, except as used by
members of the Native American Church for “bonafide religious ceremonies.”
is one of those drinks that has a certain dark appeal to it, being associated
with many brooding poets and other possibly self-destructive creative types, not
to mention being the potentially poisonous drink that was illegal for almost a
century. It actually isn't illegal anymore—but it was until 2007. It was embraced by the literary bohemian crowd
in the late 1800's as a muse and inspiration and then banned in the early 1900's
for its detrimental effects. It's a type of alcohol, but it's a very specific
brew, made from various herbs, primarily anise, fennel, and wormwood. The drink
gets its name from the wormwood's scientific classification—Artemisia absinthium.
For a long time, absinthe's unhealthy effects, namely hallucinations and
other forms of disorientation, were thought to be attributable to the wormwood
because it contains a chemical called thujone. But now we understand that the
effects are due to an extremely high alcohol content and the fact that it used
to be made by the same kind of cheap methods that also produced the famously
dangerous moonshine. But like most other dangerous substances, its original
intent was to be medicinal. It was invented to distill the medicinal effects of
wormwood into a convenient and accessible form. Just bonus points that it also
gets you drunk.
PCP, short for phencyclidine, and also known as
angel dust, super grass, whack, and ozone, was developed as a surgical
anesthetic in the 1950's. It creates a dissociative effect, leaving patients in
a trace-like state where they feel disconnected from their environment and may
even seem to have an out of body experience. Compared to many other drugs, PCP
wasn't in use for very long. It was discontinued as a medical aid in 1965,
because patients were continuously shown to irritated, irrational, and
delusional when waking up from its effects.
Many people who do PCP these days don't even know they're taking it. It's a
common additive in LSD, methamphetamine, and marijuana, and drug dealers don't
usually feel the need to give their buyers a list of ingredients.
GHB is relatively new as abused substances are concerned, and it has become
most famous as the date rape drug. It's a central nervous system depressant, and
it supposedly can be used as a strength builder, euphoriant, and aphrodisiac.
It's a particularly dangerous substance because it can be fatal when combined
with other depressants, such as alcohol. GHB has no current
medical use and there is no legal reason it should ever be produced.
Of course, it didn't start as just a drug, even if any intended medical
effects have now backfired. GHB was originally produced as an anesthetic in the
1960's because it had an ability to produce a reversible coma. It didn't last
very long in that role because while patients would be put into a coma state, it
would be accompanied by seizures and jerking movements of the limbs and face.
In the 1980's, it was marketed as a “growth hormone stimulator” for body
builders and an over the counter sedative for those who had trouble sleeping. It
was banned in 1991 thanks to people reporting adverse affects from weight loss
supplements that contained the substance.
The steroids we know didn't exist until the 1900's, but according to
steroid.com, the use of pure testosterone as a performance enhancer dates back
to the original Olympic games. Steroids as we know them date back to 1931, when
German chemist Adolf Butenant isolated the hormone androstenone from urine. Not
long after, another German chemist, Leopold Ruzicka, discovered a way to
synthetically make the hormone, and through a combined effort, they came up with
a synthetic version of testosterone. In 1939, both of them were given a Nobel
Prize for their outstanding work on making the first anabolic steroid.
The rest of the story is probably more familiar. These things got mass
produced and by the 1960's, anyone who wanted a steroid could go grab one off
the shelf. Of course, they became popular with athletes for their performance
enhancing effects—the same reason the ancient Greeks took testosterone for the
Olympics. In 1972, the International Olympic Committee created the first measure
against the use of steroids, requiring all competing athletes to be drug tested.
The US in general started cracking down on them in 1988 with the Anti-Drug Abuse
Act, which made them strictly prescription regulated. The 1990 Steroid Control
Act made them Schedule III drugs, in the same category as medically prescribed
amphetamines, opium, and morphine. They're still used for a variety of medical
reasons, but they're completely prohibited outside of that. Of course, that
doesn't stop people from still getting their hands on them.
Rohypnol was actually never allowed in the United States, but it deserves a
place on the list because the US seems to be unique in not allowing it.
It's frequently prescribed
in Europe, Latin America, and other parts of the world—but in America, it's an
illegal drug that only gets in via smugglers.
Rohypnol is a benzodiazepine, which is a type of sedative-hypnotic prescribed
for anxiety, sleep disorders, and seizures. It's the same type of drug as Xanax,
Librium, Atavan, and Valium, all of which are prescribed in the US. The reason
Rohypnol isn't is because it's ten times as potent as Valium, which is already
pretty strictly controlled. It was originally sold as round white tablets in
blister packages, which made it look much like any other medicine. The tablets
were tasteless, odorless, and colorless, and became popular as another form of
date rape drug. In response, manufacturers started coloring the tablets with a
dye that turns blue when dissolved in liquid, making it easier to spot in a
drink. The United Nations classifies Rohypnol as a Schedule III drug, but some
states in the US have individually redefined it as a Schedule I drug, the most
dangerous, because of its potential for abuse.
7) Magic Mushrooms
Magic Mushrooms, sometimes just known as "Shrooms," are probably the oldest
hallucinogenic drug in the world. According to magic-mushrooms.net, the earliest
recorded uses come from the Sahara Desert, about 7000-9000 years ago, depicted
in rock art. Like most early cultures that made use of a hallucinogenic plant,
the uses seem to have been mystic or religious in nature.
The active ingredient
in any variety of hullucinogenic mushroom is psilocybin. Once in the body, it
breaks down into another more potent chemical called psilocyn, which causes
auditory, tactile, and visual hallucinations. The mushrooms were made illegal in
1968 because of how often they were being abused. Psilocybin and psilocyn are
labeled as Schedule I drugs, but the mushrooms themselves never got scheduled.
Ketamine, like PCP, is a dissociative anesthetic, meaning it causes sedation
and a general feeling of being detached from one's surroundings. It's currently
a Schedule III substance, and is used in several medical and veterinary
capacities legally. Illegally, it's famous as a club drug, and it became popular
thanks to an ability to produce hallucinations that are enhanced by
environmental stimuli. Drugs users decided that if the environment could add to
the effect, what better place to use a hallucinogen than in a club?
Ketamine was invented in 1962 as an anesthetic, and was popular as a
battlefield medicine by the 1970's. During that time, it also started being
widely abused. By the 1980's, it was commonly used as an additive to Ecstasy,
and sometimes given as a substitute to people who thought they were taking
Ecstasy. It was classified as Schedule III in 1999 in an attempt to cut down on
MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, was patented in 1913 by German pharmaceutical
company Merck, who supposedly planned to market it as a diet pill. According to
Narconon, they abandoned that plan and never did anything with the drug. It
wasn't researched until later when a chemist from Dow Chemicals got his hands on
it. Alexander Shulgin investigated many psychoactive drugs that could
potentially be used in psychotherapy, but MDMA was reportedly the closest thing
he found to being the perfect therapeutic drug. He is also the first recorded
person to have used it. Unfortunately for him, the company saw no profit in it,
since it had already been patented and had yet to undergo serious testing.
It was classified as Schedule I in 1985, after considerable controversy. One
side pointed out the possible advantages as a psychotherapeutic drug, while the
other side reminded everyone that it had caused brain damage in lab rats. The US
Government ended the debate by exercising for the first time its right to put an
emergency ban on any substance suspected to be a danger to the public.
German merchant Fredrick Bayer established a factory in 1863 for the development
of coal-tar dyes. It wasn't until the late 1880's until they expanded into also
producing medicine. Bayer's
first medicine was produced in 1888, followed in the 1890's by its two most
famous drugs: Heroin, and (the reason you likely recognize the name) Aspirin.
Heroin was originally designed as a medicine to relieve symptoms affecting
the chest and lungs. In short, it was a cough medicine. The name is derived from
the word “heroisch,” meaning heroic, which was used at the time to describe a
strong medicine. Because heroin passes directly from the blood to the brain, it
is a faster acting painkiller than morphine. It was praised in early trials and
quickly adopted as a medicine in several countries. It was effective in treating
a cough and helping patients sleep, and there didn't seem to be any adverse
effects. In fact, patients seemed to like it. Unfortunately, they liked it a
little too much. Morphine was known to be addictive, and heroin proved to be no
better in that respect. The addictive properties first became a serious problem
in the United States, where restrictions on medicines were still handled by
individual states and not the US government. Many places were hesitant to put
tight restrictions on such an effective drug. Because of this, addiction and
illegal use grew more rampant until the US Congress felt forced to ban all
manufacture of heroin in the US in 1924.
LSD was synthesized by Sandoz Pharmaceutical
in Switzerland as a potential blood stimulant. It wasn't known to have
hallucinogenic effects until 1943, when the scientist working on the project
accidentally ingested some of the substance. He discovered that an amount
equivalent to a few grains of salt was enough to product powerful
hallucinations. It had similar affects on psychosis to a brain chemical being
studied at the time, so samples were handed out to psychiatrists through the
1940's, 50's and 60's for testing. No medical use was ever found, but the free
samples were widely spread, leading to the popular use of the drug. In the
1960's, LSD became central to some countercultures wanting to escape the
problems of society.
In the 1950's and 60's, some groups also looked into LSD as a possible
chemical weapon, because it could make people, potentially entire groups of
people, unaware of their surroundings. It also interfered with their judgement
and sometimes incited panic. That research continued until 1967, when the US
government officially banned the drug.
Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, which is native to the mountain
regions of South America and is a natural stimulant. Coca is a useful substance
at high altitude because it increases breathing, which in turn increases oxygen
intake. Coca leaves are still used by natives of the Andes to make beverages and
other products. According to Narconon, the crack cocaine we now know as a
dangerous drug, was made as a way to synthesize and magnify the effects of coca
Cocaine was first synthesized in 1855, and its medicinal effects were noticed
by medical professionals in 1880. Sigmund Freud was the first authority figure
to advocate use of the drug. He declared it a safe and useful drug that helped
to cure depression and sexual impotence. In 1886, it was included as an
ingredient in a new soft drink called Coca-Cola. It has energizing and euphoric
effects that quickly made Coca-Cola an incredibly popular beverage. Into the
early 1900's cocaine continued to be promoted by famous figures including Thomas
Edison and Sarah Bernhart.
In the early 1900's, there was no regulation on narcotics, and it was widely
available, leading to a lot of addicts and more and more problems. In 1903,
Coca-Cola was forced to remove cocaine as an ingredient. It was finally banned
overall by the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920.
Marijuana tops the list because it's seen so much controversy recently and
has actually managed to become re-legalized in a couple of states. And like
everything else on this list, it was legal once before. According to Narconon,
the first record of marijuana use dates back to a medical handbook from China in
2737 B.C. It spread across Asia and Africa and reached Europe around 500 A.D.
Throughout its spread, it was used medicinally to treat gout, rheumatism,
malaria, and absent-mindedness. It became popular as an alternative to alcohol
for recreational use in the Muslim world because alcohol was forbidden by the Quran.
It was introduced to America in 1545 by Spanish settlers, and it became an
important cash crop for English settlers because of hemp's ability to produce
fiber that could be used in manufacturing various materials. Until 1942, it was
prescribed as a medicine for labor pains, nausea and rheumatism. Of course,
recreational use was also widespread. In the 1930's, the US Federal Bureau of
Narcotics started looking at it as a gateway drug that would lead people to
serious addictions. By the 1960's, it was popular with college students and
hippies as proof of their rebellion against authority. By 1970, it had been
classified as a Schedule I drug along with heroin and LSD. Illegal use fell away
for a while, but began an upswing again in the 1990's. Today, marijuana walks a
fine line between legal and illegal, with some states allowing its use for
cancer treatment purposes. Other states have finally allowed it to be
decriminalized, with more considering this path with each new legislative
session. Still others claim to disallow it while turning a blind eye to
desperately sick patients who cannot find pain relief or solace in any other
In short, while there are certainly reasons all these drugs have been
determined to be unsafe for widespread use, all of them were first used or
designed with a medical application in mind. Obviously not all things that are
intended to be useful actually are. Some of the above were widespread flops as
medicine—like LSD. But others, like heroin, were lauded for a while for their
medical effects, and still others like peyote and magic mushrooms are naturally
occurring and had been used for various reasons by native peoples for centuries.
So while these drugs have a bad rep now, and for perfectly good reasons, they
were originally supposed to be things like religious aids, cough medicines,
sedatives, and miracle cures. It's both funny and unnerving to look back at the
times when people didn't understand why something worked, but just knew that it
did work. It all just serves to drive home the point that when most of us need
some kind of medicine, the place we get it is called a drug store.