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Opioid Addiction Between 1850 and 1900 in America

The timeframe from 1850 till 1900 within American history is remarkable because of the initial crisis of opioids abuse, which affects society to this day. Opioids were viewed as a remedy by medical professionals due to their outstanding pain-relieving characteristics. Moreover, there was no legal regulation for the opioid market, which allowed addicts to purchase these drugs easily. Several cultural and behavioral factors played a role in developing the opium epidemic between the 1850s and 1900s including easy access, reckless prescriptions, and immigrants selling opioids to lower-class Americans.

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Although opioids were first introduced at the beginning of the 19th century, they became popular within the medical community from the 1850s. According to Trickey (2018), during the 1870s, most surgeons and physicians used opioids as a pain relief medication. The application of these drugs was standard, and no side effects or other concerns were a part of public discussion or concern. Hence, patients with mild pain would receive morphine without additional prescriptions or background checks (Trickey, 2018). When compared to the medical practice today, this approach appears to be unreasonable considering the negative impacts on one’s health and the potential threat of addiction. Currently, the production and distribution of opioids are monitored closely by the government. Medical personnel has to assess each patient’s case thoroughly to prescribe opioids for pain, which was not the case in 1850.

Apart from pain relief, there was a common belief that opioids are a suitable medication for a variety of illnesses. Morphine was prescribed as a remedy for many conditions, it was believed that it “relieved pain, asthma, headaches, alcoholics’ delirium tremens, gastrointestinal diseases, and menstrual cramps” (Trickey, 2020, para. 2). The cause of this reckless attitude towards opioids was that morphine has just been introduced to the market, no research or addiction cases were recorded. Moreover, it provided fast and impressive results, which made it popular among physicians (Trickey, 2018). This view of morphine is also a result of healthcare being less regulated and developed than it is now. Hence, new medications did not have to go through randomized trials and be tested on different subjects before becoming accessible on the market. Therefore, once morphine was synthesized, it became available to the general population. Moreover, marketing played a role in the popularity of this medication, since as was mentioned, it was perceived as a remedy for several diseases (Trickey, 2018). Therefore, some reasons behind the popularity of opioids in the 1850s are easy to access, no governmental regulation, and marketing.

Considering the many factors that contributed to the popularity of opioids, from a cultural perspective, addiction and the potential danger of drugs and opioids were not a concern for the general population and policymakers. The medication containing opioids was prescribed routinely by physicians and other medical professionals. Considering the addictive nature of opioids, this systemic recklessness led to millions of Americans being addicted by the end of the 1890s (Trickey, 2018). Culturally, opioids were viewed as an acceptable medication that relieves pain and suffering. For this reason, this medication was sold without any regulation from the government. Thus, society’s acceptance of opioids allowed the epidemic to spread.

Another factor of cultural influence was the demand for opioids from wealthy patients. This was a result of the immediate effect that opioids have on a person’s body and lack of concern for potential side effects. As a result, most addicts of that time were upper-class white women who used opioids as a drug and not as a remedy (Trickey, 2018). The wealthy patients could afford to purchase this medication, and they had the political, social, and financial power to influence the decisions of the medical professionals.

Another factor that contributed to the opioids crisis was the development of the hypodermic syringe (Trickey, 2020). This tool allowed easy delivery of the medication into the patient’s blood, which meant that the effect of opioids could be seen immediately. This, together with the marketing of opioid’s superior medical qualities, appealed to the potential users and abusers of the drug. Bandyopadhyay (2019) also notes that the hypodermic syringe played a role in opioids popularity in 1850 since it allowed people to experience the effect of the drug within seconds. Moreover, since it was administered directly into the blood, the liver of patients did not destroy it, allowing for a prolonged effect.

Once opioids became popular and abused by many upper-class representatives, this drug became a business venture for some communities. The opioids were sold by Chinese immigrants during the 1870s (Bandyopadhyay, 2019; Trickey, 2020). These immigrants were able to access large amounts of these drugs, which allowed them to operated so-called “opium dens” in large cities of the United States. Hence, as the medical community became more aware of the opioids’ dangers, the lower-class Americans gained access to these drugs through immigrants from China. With this change, opioids use became an issue not only among the upper-class Americas but within other societal strata as well.

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Notably, the addictive nature of the opioids and the side effects that patients who are taking them experienced gained attention from the medical community. Eventually, during the late 1880s, medical journals published articles warning about opioids (Trickey, 2018). However, the medical community adopted slowly, with most doctors either having no valid alternative or experiencing pressure from their wealthy patients to prescribe opioids. However, after the 1900s, the issue was resolved through government regulation and more control over the sale and use of opioids (Trickey, 2018). Government control and regulation are what allowed to slow down the development of the opioid epidemic.

The scope of the opioids problem aggravated quickly, causing many Americans to develop an addiction. By 1895, 1 in every 200 Americans had an addiction to opioids (Trickey, 2020). This caused the government to finally recognize the problem and address it through regulation of the market. However, it is essential to note that drugs and opioids, in particular, were known to humanity for a while, for example, opium was prescribed to people 8000 years ago (Bandyopadhyay, 2019). The interplay of several cultural and behavioral factors is what caused opioids to become a severe problem for American society between the 1850s and 1900.

Overall, this paper focuses on the exploration of the opioids crisis between the 1850s and 1900s. At the beginning of 1850, opioids were treated as a medication prescribed by physicians as a pain-relieving medication. This drug was marked as a remedy for many conditions, including coughing. Moreover, the market was unregulated, and the medical community began to raise concerns about addiction only at the end of the 1890s. By this time, one in 200 Americans has developed an addiction to opioids. The issue persisted until the government decided to regulate the use of these drugs, and prescriptions of them were no longer common.


Bandyopadhyay, S. (2019). An 8,000-year history of use and abuse of opium and opioids: How that matters for a successful control of the epidemic ? Neurology, 92(15), 49-55.

Trickey, F. (2018). Inside the story of America’s 19th-century opiate addiction. Smithtorian Magazine. Web.

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