No matter how you feel about reefer, you can’t deny that the ancients were clearly on its side – and we do mean ancient. The cannabis plant was probably cultivated in the Middle Stone Age in northeast Asia; there’s evidence for its use a fiber going back more than 6,000 years. The Assyrians in the 8th century BC, referred to it fondly as “Qunubu,” the Indians used it as an aphrodisiac (apparently it puts the “Tantric” in “Tantric sex”), and the Chinese around the 1st century BC believed that burning it as incense could lead to immortality. The Chinese word for hemp is “ta-ma,” which means “great fiber,” and there’s evidence that the Chinese were using it for more than just making dumpy clothes when they coined the word: the character “ma” has a special connotation referring to spacey senselessness. Comfortably numb, indeed!
By the way, the slang term “420” did not get its start as a police code for a drug bust, or because there are 420 chemicals in marijuana (there are actually about 315), or because it’s Hitler’s birthday, all of which are popular rumors. The “420” was simply the time of day that a small clique of kids at San Rafael High School in California used to enjoy getting high in 1971. Why it caught on nationwide, we dunno, man.
Partygoers love it because it’s a stimulant; models love it because it’s an appetite suppressant; and in the 19th and early 20th century, doctors loved it because it was an anesthetic. Specifically, cocaine was used topically to numb the skin during eye and throat surgery. Of course, recreationally, it used to be quite popular with the intelligentsia, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Ulysses S. Grant, from Sigmund Freud to William Halstead, the great surgeon who experimented with it and got himself addicted in the process. And about Coca-Cola – the first versions of the drink really did have trace amounts of cocaine. Coke (the brown stuff) wasn’t completely free of coke (the white stuff) until the 1920s.
The term comes from the Greek word narkotikos, meaning “deadening,” and it refers to derivatives of a substance found in the unripe seeds of the poppy plant: opium. Known to humans since the Neolithic age, opium was a popular painkiller in the ancient world (Hippocrates was familiar with it) and, later on, an entertainment for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Morphine, named after the Roman sleep god Morpheus, was synthesized in 1803. Ironically, it was the search for a substance that could wean people off morphine that led to the discovery of heroin. For years, the pharmaceutical company Bayer actually held the trademark for the word “heroin” and sold it as a cough and headache remedy. Some patients in today’s intensive-care units are still given cough medicines made from, shall we say, prescription-strength opiates. As for “hillbilly heroin” or OxyContin, it’s a relatively new drug, approved by the FDA in 1995 for chronic-pain and cancer patients.
Some common benzos (not to be confused with “Benzos,” the gangsta-rap term for Mercedes-Benz vehicles) are Xanax, Valium, Halcion, and Rohypnol, the date-rape drug known as a “roofie.” Valium was invented in 1963 by the drug company Hoffman-La Roche, the same group that invented Rohypnol (initially created for patients needing deep sedation) about ten years later. But that’s not its real origin – Valium (or, to be technical about it, diazepam) is an all-natural chemical, and trace amounts can be found in wheat and potatoes. Today, it’s mainly used as a sedative to treat anxiety.
Lysergic acid derivative (LSD) wasn’t discovered until the mid-1900s, but it pops up in history well before that as “ergot,” a fungus that grows on rye. In the Middle Ages, Europe was wracked by poisonings to which thousands of people died of “St. Anthony’s Fire” – a gangrenous disease that resulted from eating rye bread tainted with this precursor of LSD. (There was also a convulsive form of the disease, in which people basically suffered from bad trips.) Ergot poisonings were still happening in Russia as late as 1927. By then, though, doctors had learned to wield ergot to decrease suffering, not cause it – a doctor in Frankfurt appears to have used it to induce labor in pregnant women as early as 1582.
Lysergic acid is the active ingredient in ergot, and “active” is definitely the right word, as the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who unlocked LSD’s secrets, discovered while experimenting on himself in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. (He’s no relation to Abbie Hoffman, the hippie activist who was also a big fan of drugs.) Of one experiment, Albert Hoffman wrote: “The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk – in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.” We have no idea why people think this sounds fun.