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Blog : Why They Call It Dope


by Ed Zwirn on October 18th, 2014

Bayer Pharmaceutical Products advertisementIn 1874, chemist C.R. Adler Wright synthesized diacetylmorphine in his London laboratory by adding two acetyl groups to the molecule morphine, which is found naturally in the opium poppy. The new wonder drug was itself an inactive drug, but when inserted into the body it rapidly converted into morphine.

Morphine at the time had been in widespread use, at least in the United States, since the Civil War, when it was basically the only pain killer available for battlefield injuries. In the decades to follow, veterans (and many others) continued to use morphine, for both pain relief and "recreational" purposes, many becoming addicted along the way.

In 1895, the German drug company Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine as an over-the-counter drug under the trade name Heroin. They got the name from the Greek word "heros" because of its perceived "heroic" effects upon a user. It was developed mainly as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants. As can be seen in the trade advertising of the era, Bayer considered its new drug one of its patented stars (along with aspirin) and marketed it as a "non-addictive morphine substitute." It wasn't until 1913, after the high addiction rates associated with its use became obvious, that Bayer ceased heroin manufacture.

It is useful to recall amidst all the attention given to attempts to liberalize marijuana laws throughout the country that this liberalization represents only a slight backward swing in pendulum of U.S. drug policy. Just about 100 years ago, Americans could purchase any drug they wanted over the counter, without fear of legal repercussion or the need for a doctor's prescription.

According to my New Oxford American Dictionary, the word "dope" has its origins in the early 18th century, when it referred to a "thick, gooey liquid." Dopes were commonly sold in combination hardware-drug stores, establishments in which customers could purchase everything from "pipe dope" for plumbing jobs to tonics for depressed women, and hang out with other upstanding citizens at the soda fountain, where they could drink Coca-Cola, which until 1903 included an estimated dose of nine milligrams of cocaine per serving.

There are probably no accurate figures on drug use, misuse and addiction during this free-for-all period, but one thing is certain: Many Americans back at the turn of the loast century were getting pain relief (or a good high) and off of substances they would do time for possessing today, and this was considered a health issue, with no law enforcement or prison involvement.

The party started to come to an end in 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act took effect, requiring the labeling of "habit-forming" and "deleterious" substances, including heroin, cocaine and marijuana. This labeling, after which many innocent users of tonics, cough medicines and other "dope" could no longer claim innocence, lessened the social acceptability of these drugs while increasing awareness of their side effects, and led to the eventual curtailment of their production and criminalization of possession and use.

The decade of the 1920s saw this criminalization trend going even further, with the passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning alcohol. By the 1930s, at the nadir of the Great Depression, this attempt at sobriety had been abandoned. Even though Prohibition undoubtedly lowered the consumption of alcoholic beverages while it was in effect, it had become widely unpopular among people who liked to drink, and because of the gangster era it had spawned, and the public was desperate in any case for ways to increase economic activities and benefit tax coffers.

It wasn't until 1937, a few years after the repeal of Prohibition, that growing and using marijuana became illegal under federal and state laws. From 1850 to 1941, cannabis was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a recognized medicine. In 1970, spurred on in part by President Richard Nixon's widely touted "war on drugs," the U.S. Congress decided that marijuana lacked medicinal value and was an illegal substance. The Controlled Substance Act of that year decided that MJ (along with LSD and heroin) was a Schedule I substance, having the highest potential for abuse and no medicinal value. Drugs in schedules II through V, which are considered less dangerous than marijuana, include opium, cocaine and amphetamine.

This misalignment of U.S. drug policy is beginning to reverse itself, at least on the state and local levels of government. Some 23 states and the District of Columbia now allow some degree of medical and/or recreational MJ use and the coming election will see voters in seven states, one U.S. territory and at least 17 cities and counties face a marijuana initiative when they go to the polls.

Drug store soda fountainThe quaint remembrances we have of the U.S. of 100 years ago often include a nostalgic look at the drug store soda fountains of yore without a full appreciation of what may have been going on at these community watering holes. A future generation may well look back at cannabis dispensaries in much the same way. As the MJ business (in all its legal and illegal manifestations) mainstreams, and revenues guessed to be at least $40 billion annually in the U.S. go legit, it's important to remember why they call it "dope." It's named after all the stupid laws that regulate it.





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