drug abuse through the ages

Drug Abuse Through the Ages – High Society at Wellcome Collection

The United Nations recently estimated that the illicit drug trade is worth at least $320 billion per annum (£200bn). It looks as if society is engaged on an all time ‘high’, not just on drugs, but on tea, coffee and alcohol, mood-altering substances which we take for granted.

Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture

High Society is curated by author/historian Mike Jay, together with Caroline Fisher and Emily Sargent of the Wellcome Collection.

The exhibition charts the history of drugs and their plant origins; their use as medicines; and how mind-altering substances, such as ecstasy (MDMA), have been synthetically recreated and marketed.

The use of psychoactive substances is not a new phenomenon; the ancient Egyptians used poppy tinctures and the Victorians had their cocaine eye drops. Sherlock Holmes had his opium, and it is said that Alice’s bizarre adventures in Wonderland show the effects of drug abuse.

High Society presents more than two hundred items including drawings, paintings, sculptures, books and manuscripts. The display also features specially commissioned installations including a recreation of the Joshua Light Show (Joshua White/Seth Kirby). White is well-known for the psychedelic backdrops he created for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

High Society – Layout of the Exhibition

High Society is set out in six clearly delineated sections:

  • A Universal Impulse explores society’s attitude to drugs. For example, a substance might be regarded as a public health problem in one country, but may be perfectly acceptable elsewhere.
  • From Apothecary to Laboratory looks at drugs, such as cocaine, opium, heroin and cannabis, which are derived from plants and used as medicines throughout history. Centuries ago opium was recognised as an effective painkiller and remains the main ingredient in many of today’s prescriptions. The exhibition looks at both the legal, and illegal, uses of opium, as well as the signs and symptoms of abuse, as recorded by numerous artists. De Historia Stirpivm, by Leonhard Fuchs (Basel, 1542), is a herbal, written in Latin, in which the author describes each plant in detail. The page shows a cannabis plant.
  • Self-experimentation explains how the majority of medicines are tested on animals and their affects proven in a laboratory. However, the affects of recreational drugs can only be described by their users. In the 19th Century many new drugs were discovered through self-experimentation and there was a fine line between entertainment and scientific research! The exhibition features the manuscript Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (ca. 1797-1804). Coleridge was known to use opium, usually in the form of laudanum, and claimed to have written this poem while under the influence of the drug.
  • Collective Intoxication demonstrates how drug use, and abuse, is so often a communal activity. 420 Day at the University of Colorado, (Mark Leffingwell), shows a mass ‘smoke-in’ as part of 4:20 celebrations. Celebrated annually on 20th April, 4:20 day is a counter-culture holiday closely linked to the campaign to legalise cannabis.
  • The Drugs Trade relates how the opium trade played a major part in the British Empire’s rise during the 19th Century.
  • A Sin, a Crime, a Vice or a Disease? This question was asked as long ago as 1884 by Dr. Norman Kerr. Defining the nature of drug abuse has always been problematic, as has deciding how to deal with it. High Society looks at the situation in the UK where substance abusers tend to be medicalised and substances are subject to a variety of legal statuses.

The exhibition concludes that however substance abuse is treated, little can be done to control the market for illegal narcotics.

High Society – Exhibition Catalogue

High Society is accompanied by a 192-page catalogue entitled High Society Mind-altering Drugs in History and Culture. Written by Mike Jay, and featuring150 colour illustrations, the publication provides a detailed history of mind-altering drugs around the world. (ISBN 978 0 500 251720, Thames & Hudson Ltd.)

High Society will be open until 27th February 2018 and further information is available from the Wellcome Collection.

Opioid abuse

Information on Opioid Abuse: Codeine, Fentanyl and Heroin

Opioid abuse can affect users’ health and social functioning. Also called narcotics, opioid drugs act upon specific receptors in the brain. When they bind to these opioid receptors, it causes euphoria. Over time, users can become dependent on them. In the article “Opioid Abuse,” NYU Langone Medical Center points out that the risk for opioid abuse is higher in people between the ages of 20 and 29. Examples of three abused opioid drugs include codeine, fentanyl and heroin.

Codeine Abuse

When used under the guidance of a doctor, codeine treats mild to moderate pain or coughing. Codeine has several different classifications for controlled substances, which vary depending on what other drugs are combined with it. For example, in the article “Codeine,” the US Drug Enforcement Administration explains that codeine alone is a Schedule II, but when it is combined with acetaminophen or aspirin, it is a Schedule III. Liquid versions of codeine for coughs are Schedule V controlled substances.

Taking too much codeine can result in an overdose. MedlinePlus points out in the article “Codeine” that users can have a slow heartbeat, difficulty breathing and dizziness when overdosing. Fainting and excessive drowsiness can occur. Users can also have cold and clammy skin. Other signs of an overdose of codeine include a loss of consciousness and muscle tone.

Fentanyl Abuse

Fentanyl is also a Schedule II drug. Its medical purpose is to treat pain in cancer patients or pain that is not controlled by other medications. Fentanyl is available as a patch, injection or lozenge. In the article “Fentanyl,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that fentanyl may be mixed with heroin, which resulted in recent overdoses.

Uncontrolled intake of fentanyl can result in fainting and slow breathing. Drugs.com points out in the article “Fentanyl Information” that people overdosing on fentanyl may have cold and clammy skin or pinpoint pupils. Extreme weakness or dizziness can also occur during an overdose.

Heroin Abuse

In the article “Heroin,” the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that in the Monitoring the Future Survey, 1.3 percent of eighth graders, 1.5 percent of tenth graders and 1.2 percent of twelfth graders responded that they had used heroin. This type of opioid drug is synthesized by morphine. Users smoke, inject or snort it. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on it.

MedlinePlus explains in the article “Heroin Overdose” that when people overdose on heroin, they can have breathing problems, such as shallow breathing, slow and difficult breathing or no breathing. Low blood pressure and a weak pulse can occur. Users can have bluish-colored nails and lips. A heroin overdose can also cause constipation or stomach and intestinal tract spasms. Other signs of a heroin overdose include muscle spasticity, drowsiness, disorientation, delirium and coma.