What was Drug Use Like in the Old West?

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What was drug use like in the Old West?

Shane King-Furgala
Irvine, California

Drugs were pretty common and were legal—whether for killing pain or recreational use (or as an additive in Coca Cola).

The most popular painkillers were whiskey, morphine, opium and laudanum. These could be purchased over the counter at any drugstore. Initially, morphine was the most common narcotic on the frontier. It was first extracted in 1804 and was the first drug derived from a natural plant. It remains one of the most powerful pain relievers because it acts directly on the central nervous system. It’s also one of the most addictive. Too large a dose can be deadly. Commercial marketing began in the 1820s. After the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1853 its use expanded.

Morphine was hard to make and difficult to obtain so its cousin opium—introduced by Chinese immigrants—became the drug of choice in the West. Prior to 1909 there were no restrictions on its import or use. It became a cure for morphine addiction, but as the prime ingredient in laudanum (along with morphine and alcohol), it was used for headaches, menstrual issues, psychological problems, and pretty much anything
that ailed you. Opium dens (where the drug was smoked) operated in the Chinese sections of towns. They featured private rooms, couches, beds and prostitutes.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu.

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