Society - Legal
By: - at July 29, 2013

Top 15 Illegal Drugs That Used To Be Legal

illegal drugsDrugs 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.

15)  Opium
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 Reformation.

Opium poppy plant - heroin

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.

14)  Methamphetamine
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, we see that methamphetamine started being used by doctors in the US in the 1930's as a treatment for asthma and narcolepsy.


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.

13)  Peyote
Peyote is a type of cactus that 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 cactus

Peyote was banned in the Controlled Substances Act of 1965, except as used by members of the Native American Church for “bonafide religious ceremonies.”

12)  Absinthe
AbsintheAbsinthe 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.

11)  PCP
PCPPCP, 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.

10)  GHB
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.

GHB man taking it

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.

9)  Steroids
The steroids we know didn't exist until the 1900's, but according to, 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.

Steroid medication

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.

8)  Rohypnol
Date rape spiking a drink downers benzosRohypnol 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, 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.

Magic mushrooms tripping your face off

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.

6)  Ketamine
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 illegal use.

5)  Ecstasy
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.

Ecstasy Pills

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.

4)  Heroin
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 - cooking heroin

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.

3)  LSD
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.

LDS Hippie fun

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.

2)  Cocaine
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 leaves.


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.

1)  Marijuana
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.

Marijuana Medical legalize

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 drug.

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.





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