Drug Use Before Prohibition

It is amazing how our perspective changes over time. Some drugs that at one time were permissible and encouraged are taboo today. It might make us wonder what things that we use today will one day not be acceptable.

Looking back through old advertisements from the late 1800s and early 1900s, we see product after product containing what we today consider illicit drugs. These products were used medically to treat certain types of pain or sickness, even in children. While it may be comical to hear companies promoting these drugs, known to be so dangerous today, these things were used regularly by the public.

Cocaine-Based Products

You may know that Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine. It may be a surprise, however, to hear that cocaine throat lozenges were popular around the year 1900. These throat drops were advertised as being “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators” because they cured a sore throat and also provided a pick-me-up to help these people perform.

Vin Mariani coca wine mixed cocaine and alcohol for medicinal effects, and was even endorsed by Pope Leo VIII.

Among the most bizarre sounding products were cocaine toothache drops, designed to ease teething pain in children and toothaches in adults. Again, it was marketed as being able to numb pain, but also to put the user in a good mood.

Opiate-Based Products

Cocaine was not the only substance being used in those days. Heroin, morphine, and other opiate-based formulations were also very popular. Heroin was used as a cough suppressant and to relieve asthma. Opiates were an effective treatment for dysentery.

Stickney and Poor’s paregoric combined opium and alcohol. Doses on the bottle were  listed for infants as young as 5 days old. This particular product also contained 46% alcohol, making quite the brew to be giving a newborn baby. Another product, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup with morphine, was marketed to soothe fussy babies in the 1880s.

Along with these concoctions came other surprising products, such as Benzedrine inhalers. These were so popular for a time that they were handed out for free by airlines to minimize discomfort among passengers.

Drug Addiction and Regulation

We’ve certainly come a long way from those days. Over time, people began to abuse these medications enough that regulation became necessary. Today, we couldn’t get near many of these drugs without a prescription or committing a drug possession crime. It is interesting, however, to note the similarities between wonder drugs of the late 1800s and those of today. Manufacturers continue to market the newest drugs as important treatments for certain medical conditions. Unfortunately, just as with heroin and cocaine, one of the biggest risks with these drugs is addiction, and because of this, these substances are not safe for everyone to use.


Prohibition of Drugs
Psychoactive drugs before prohibition

Before Prohibition:

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