A Look Back At Psychoactive Drugs That Were Once 'Miracle Cures'

By Victoria Kim 04/17/17

Cocaine was touted as a cure for addiction to morphine, alcohol, heroin, and even tobacco in the early 20th century.

A nurse from the early 20th century standing in front of a medicine cabinet.

In response to a new rehab program that offers marijuana as a treatment for drug addiction, Keith Humphreys of The Washington Post offers a brief history lesson on the use of psychoactive drugs as a cure for substance use disorder. 

High Sobriety is a Los Angeles rehab that offers Cannabis-Inclusive Treatment—a program that gives cannabis to people who haven’t had success in quitting drugs elsewhere.

There was a lot of press coverage about High Sobriety in March, but it’s hardly the first time a recreational drug has been promoted to treat everything from drug addiction to depression to indigestion.

Humphreys takes us back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when some American physicians touted morphine, an opiate, as a treatment for alcoholism. However, decades later, this so-called “cure” had amassed a generation of patients hooked on morphine.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bayer Corp. marketed heroin as a “safe, non-addictive” alternative to morphine. Around this time, cocaine was also touted as a cure for addiction to morphine, alcohol, heroin, and even tobacco. 

Of course, none of these claims turned out to be true. And these “miracle drugs” claimed their own addicted patients. (Sound familiar?)

"Like an invasive species introduced intentionally into an environment to combat other invasive species, each new cure eventually became a problem in itself," writes Humphreys.

It’s not hard to see why both doctors and patients were easily convinced of these drugs’ supposed benefits. The drugs make patients feel good, and feel that the drug is working. But in reality, they’re not getting better, but misinterpreting their positive feelings as better health.

Historian David Courtwright of the University of North Florida explained that even medicine is prone to fads. “Physicians like new drugs,” he told Humphreys. “When one becomes available it often gets overused.” 

During the ‘70s, doctors prescribed Valium for anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms, and more. Needless to say, “quite a few patients became dependent,” Courtwright said. 

Valium was a benzodiazepine, which was marketed as a safer alternative to barbiturates, a “previous wonder drug” that also proved to be addictive and dangerous, explained Humphreys. It’s a never-ending cycle. 

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr