3,500-Year Drug Binge


It’s actually more than that. But an opium jug dating to 1500 B.C. is the oldest artifact at an odd museum exhibit that catalogs humanity's lust for drugs. The exhibit, at the Wellcome Collection Museum in London has items that span recorded history, including a room-sized bong.

While opium and related narcotics hold the longest run (as the raw product, morphine, and heroin) there are a surprising number of substances that used to be illegal and are now approved. Drugs, like anything else, come in and out of favor. Alcohol is legal now, in most of the world, but at one time booze, caffeine and tobacco were all illegal.

The exhibit, called “High Society” runs through February and gives a broader view of substance abuse. Even the U.S. gets a mention when our Love-ins of the 1960s are classed as a sort of tribal/collective use of drugs – in the way a South American tribe might still use ceremonial drug taking.

Are there any lessons to be learned? Perhaps the first is that drug use and abuse isn’t a modern invention. We know more about how drugs damage us and we have designed some powerful derivatives of naturally occurring substances, but there have been epidemics of drug use throughout history.

One thing is plain. Calling addiction a moral failing, or making some substance illegal, doesn’t do much to stop its use. More than anything else, it seems that the popularity of a particular drug depends on price and availability. Legalizing a substance also doesn’t reduce use.

So, while there aren’t any answers here, the exhibit documents drugs and their role in shaping history. This is a story most people are unaware of.

Also on the site (resources section) are essays, books and films that are available free on the internet. Offerings include a link to the full text of an 1821 book, “Confessions of an Opium-eater” and the original film, “Refer Madness”.

The section, drugs and the brain, has a nice rundown on basic neurochemistry and how drug abuse affects the brain. Worth checking out the site, even if you can’t make it to London for the exhibit.


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