History of Drug Misuse in Europe

Drug misuse in Europe has a long and complex history that spans several centuries. The use of drugs for medicinal and religious purposes can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, the use of opium and other drugs was prevalent in Europe, and by the 19th century, opium and cocaine were widely used in European society. In the early 20th century, the use of amphetamines and barbiturates became more common, with many individuals using these drugs to increase productivity and improve mood.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the counterculture movement, which led to an increase in the use of drugs such as marijuana and psychedelics. This period is also associated with the beginning of the opioid epidemic in Europe, as heroin started to be widely used in cities like London and Paris. In the 1980s and 1990s, the use of crack cocaine became a major issue in many European cities, particularly in the United Kingdom and Spain.

Today, the most commonly used drugs in Europe are cannabis, cocaine, and ecstasy. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the European Union, with about 20% of adults aged 15-34 having used it in the last year. Cocaine is the second most commonly used drug in Europe, with about 5% of adults in the EU having used it in the last year. Ecstasy is the third most commonly used drug, with about 2% of adults in the EU having used it in the last year.

In recent years, the misuse of prescription drugs and synthetic drugs has also become a growing problem in Europe. According to the EMCDDA, the non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly opioids, is a significant concern in several European countries. The rise of new psychoactive substances (NPS) or synthetic drugs is also a concern, as these drugs are often more potent and dangerous than traditional drugs.

Efforts to address drug misuse in Europe include harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchange programs and opioid substitution therapy, as well as law enforcement and education campaigns. The EMCDDA also provides important data, information, and analysis on the drug situation in Europe, which is used to inform and support European Union and national drug policies.


History of Drug Misuse in Canada

Drug misuse in Canada has a long and complex history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opium and cocaine were widely available and used for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Opium, in particular, was commonly used as a pain reliever and was available in a variety of forms, including pills, tinctures, and smoking mixtures. Cocaine, on the other hand, was often used as a stimulant and was marketed as a cure for a variety of ailments, including fatigue, headaches, and depression.

However, as the negative effects of these drugs became more apparent, the government began to enact stricter drug control laws. The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act of 1908 prohibited the import, manufacture, and sale of opium for anything other than medicinal purposes. Similarly, the Narcotic Control Act of 1911 made it illegal to possess, produce, or sell opium, cocaine, and other drugs without a license.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Canada continued to strengthen its drug control laws. The Opium and Narcotic Drug Act was amended in 1920 to prohibit the import and export of opium, and in 1923, the Narcotic Control Act was amended to include harsher penalties for drug offenses. By the mid-20th century, the use of recreational drugs had become stigmatized and criminalized.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a resurgence of drug use, particularly among youth. This was partly due to the counterculture movement of the time, which rejected traditional social norms and encouraged experimentation with drugs. The government responded by increasing law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking, but this approach did not address the underlying social and economic factors that contribute to drug addiction. As a result, rates of drug use and overdose continued to rise.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards a more harm reduction-based approach to addressing drug misuse. This approach recognizes that addiction is a complex issue that cannot be solved through criminalization alone, but rather it requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the social and economic determinants of addiction. This includes expanding access to harm reduction services, such as needle exchange programs and opioid substitution therapy, as well as increasing funding for research, prevention, and treatment of addiction.


History of drug misuse in the United States

Drug misuse in the United States has a long and complex history. The use of drugs has been present in the country since its founding, with the earliest settlers bringing over alcohol and opium. In the 19th century, the use of opium and opium-based products became increasingly prevalent, leading to the creation of laws regulating their sale and use.

One of the first federal drug laws, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, was passed. It placed federal taxes on the sale of opium and cocaine and imposed stricter regulations on their production, distribution and use. However, the law was primarily enforced against African American and Chinese immigrants who were disproportionately affected.

In the early 20th century, the use of marijuana and other drugs was not widespread. However, the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively criminalized the drug. This law was primarily enforced against Mexican immigrants, who were associated with marijuana use.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the use of marijuana, psychedelics, and prescription drugs became popular among young people, leading to a backlash and the creation of new laws and law enforcement efforts to combat drug use. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat drug use.

The “war on drugs” in the 1980s under President Reagan significantly increased funding for drug law enforcement and led to harsher sentences for drug offenses, disproportionately affecting communities of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the war on drugs has led to the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly Black Americans, for nonviolent drug offenses.

In the 1990s and 2000s, prescription drug misuse emerged as a major problem in the United States. The opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies began aggressively marketing opioid painkillers to doctors and patients. This led to widespread misuse of the drugs and a significant increase in opioid-related overdose deaths.

Today, the United States continues to struggle with drug misuse, with opioid addiction and overdose being a particularly pressing issue. Many experts and advocates argue that a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach, is needed to address the issue effectively. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends a comprehensive approach that includes increasing access to addiction treatment, reducing the availability of illicit drugs, and promoting prevention and education programs.


  • “The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • “The opioid epidemic” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
  • “The History of Drugs in America” History.com
  • “The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” Erowid
  • “The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act” Drug Policy Alliance

History of Drug Misuse in England

Once upon a time, in the United Kingdom, drugs were not widely misused. However, as time passed, the use of drugs such as opium, cocaine, and heroin began to spread, particularly among the lower classes. These drugs were often used as a means of escape from the harsh realities of everyday life, such as poverty and unemployment.

As the use of these drugs became more prevalent, the government began to take notice. In the early 1900s, laws were passed to regulate and control the sale and distribution of certain drugs, including the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920 and the Rolleston Committee in 1926, which aimed to control the use of morphine and heroin for medicinal purposes.

Despite these efforts, drug misuse continued to be a problem, and the number of drug-related deaths and crimes began to rise. With the arrival of World War II and post-war period, the use of drugs such as Benzedrine, which was prescribed to soldiers and civilians to help them stay alert, became more widespread.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new wave of drug misuse emerged, as young people began experimenting with a variety of new drugs, including cannabis, LSD, and amphetamines. The government responded with even stricter laws, including the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, which classified drugs into different categories based on their potential for harm. This act still remains the main legislation in the UK for drug control.

Despite these efforts, drug misuse remained a significant problem in the UK, particularly in inner-city areas. In the 1980s and 1990s, the use of crack cocaine and heroin reached epidemic levels, leading to a surge in crime, poverty, and homelessness. The government response was to increase law enforcement efforts to combat drug trafficking and possession, as well as harsher penalties for drug offenses.

In recent years, the government has taken a more holistic approach to addressing drug misuse, including investing in education and treatment programs to help those who are struggling with addiction. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, an independent body that advises the government on drug-related issues, has recommended a shift towards a health-based approach to drug policy, including the provision of harm reduction services, such as needle exchange programs and opioid substitution therapy.

While the problem of drug misuse in the UK is still ongoing, progress is being made to combat it. The government also invest in more research and development to find new ways to help those who are struggling with addiction. The UK is also a signatory of the United Nations conventions on narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, which sets global standards for drug control, and aims to promote cooperation among countries to combat drug misuse.

However, there is still a long way to go. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2020, drug-related deaths in England and Wales reached a record high, with 4,393 deaths registered, the highest number since comparable records began in 1993.

photo of opened bible book on brown table

Overview of Drugs Usage in the Scriptures (Bible)

Note: This is an abridged, text version of the Podcast episode on Drugs and the Bible. I have a lot of friends who have an interest in this particular topic. To make it easier for them, I am publishing this alongside the full podcast. It follows on from the Podcast episode on Drugs in Babylon and Assyria.

About the Bible

The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books. Some, or all of these are regarded as sacred text by followers of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Rastafarianism, Samaritanism, and other faiths. While the internet is full of debates over the authorship of some of the books, such discussions are beyond the scope of this podcast. Our interest is in what the Bible reveals about the historical use of drugs in the Near East. We shall take the Bible at face value since the stories it presents tell us something about the beliefs and lifestyles of the authors and the communities in which they were based.

Connection with Babylon and Assyria

Assyrian statue

We find the first connection between the Bible and Babylon or Assyria in the book of Genesis[1]. This identifies Abram (later Abraham[2]) as having been born and brought up in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abraham is estimated to have lived around the second millennium BC[3]. He is the acknowledged forebear of Jews[4], Muslims[5] and Christians[6], whether in a physical or spiritual sense.

Chaldea was a region of the Persian Gulf, around the second millennium BC, that overlapped what was to later become Assyria and Babylon[7]. Abraham left the land of Chaldea and settled in the region around modern Palestine and Israel[8]. The rest of his family only made a partial journey and settled in Haran[9], which was likely part of the Assyrian empire[10].

Abraham had a monotheistic religion, which appears to have been a strong driving force behind the departure from Mesopotamia in the first place[12]. However, those who remained in Haran retained some polytheistic beliefs[13]. Interestingly, both Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob, got their wives from Haran[11]. We can therefore reasonably ask if Assyrian culture influenced the culture and medical practices of Abraham’s descendants.

Plants with drug-like effects


As we look at plants with drug-like effects in the Bible, we come across two unusual examples: the trees of life and of knowledge of good and evil[14]. The first of these is said to have possessed remarkable repair and regenerative powers, to the effect that it would make humans live forever[15]. The book of Revelation also references its unparalleled healing properties[16]. This is also likely the same tree referenced by Ezekiel in his vision in Ezekiel 47:12.

It appears that eating the fruit of the second tree results in massive harm, not so much from the tree itself but from the act of disobedience. Sadly neither plant is currently available for science to evaluate the secrets behind its properties.

The next plant we come across, used as a drug, are mandrakes. They are mentioned in Genesis 30:14-16 as well as in Song of Solomon 7:13. They were believed to be aphrodisiacs, fertility drugs as well as used for their fragrance. It appears that the Jacob’s wives and his descendants, many years later, shared this view of mandrakes held by other cultures[17].

Other examples of drug use

The 30th Chapter of Genesis also reveals what may either be seen as a misinformed attempt at drug therapy or as another superstitious belief in plants[18]. Jacob tries to use fresh sticks from the poplar, almond and plane trees to change the coat colour of livestock. He later learns the true reasons behind the outcomes, in terms of homozygous or heterozygous genotypes and phenotypes[19].

Other examples of drugs used in healing, diagnosis or otherwise include the following:

  1. Moses using a branch from an unnamed tree to purify some drinking water (Exodus 15:24-25)
  2. Use of hyssop as a cleansing an antiseptic agent. (Leviticus 14:4-6, Psalm 51:7).
  3. Holy water and dust as a diagnostic test (Numbers 5:11-31).
  4. Using a poultice of figs to heal a cancerous boil on a terminally ill king (2 Kings 20:1-11).
  5. Using ashes, containing charcoal, to alleviate the pain from painful sores (Job 2:7-8).
  6. The positive presentation of the benefits of medicine[20].
  7. The many references to the use of “balms” in the Old Testament. You can find these in Genesis 37:25, 43:11; Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11, 51:8 and Ezekiel 27:17. The ancients used balms in trade as well as for a variety of medical conditions, including pain management. They also gave them as gifts [21]. Furthermore, we derive the word, “embalm”, from the word, “balm,” thus acknowledging the chemical properties of the drugs in the embalming agents. (Genesis 50:2, 3 and 26).
  8. Jeremiah gives a figurative reference to ineffective medicines (Jeremiah 30:13, 46:11).
  9. Jesus uses clay made with his saliva alongside one of his healing miracles (John 9:1-7); which is perhaps an acknowledgement of the poultices that were sometimes used in healings.

Alcohol in the Bible

Alcoholic drinks

Having gone through the list above, it would be remiss of us to not mention another drug that appears several times in the Bible, right through from Genesis to Revelation. This, you might have guessed, is alcohol. In fact, one can argue that this appears more than any other drug in the Bible. A rudimentary count of the number of occurrences of the word, “wine,” in the King James Version shows that it appears a minimum of 267 times. As such, we would need a whole series to look at the subject of wine and the Bible.

If you search online, you will also find many sites dedicated to either the condemnation or support of alcohol consumption based on selected Bible references. However, it appears that many of these sites give arguments based on a superficial reading of the texts, mainly based on the English translations of the original languages. Scholarly research suggests that the term “wine” in the Bible was used both for alcoholic beverages and for unfermented grape juice[22]. In general, it appears that the favourable references relate to the unfermented juice, while the unfavourable references relate to the alcoholic beverages.

Among the deleterious effects highlighted as caused by alcohol are drunkenness, poor decision-making, poor behaviour, numbing of the mind, alcohol addiction and being a symbol for apostasy, spiritual confusion and slavery.

However, there are positive references to (unfermented) wine as being useful for pleasurable consumption and treatment of some medical conditions.

There is also a reference in the Book of Proverbs[23] to the use of strong wine for those who are perishing, most likely referring to the pain-numbing properties of alcohol in an age when there were no general anaesthetics or palliative drugs for those in terminal pain. Having said all this, one may note that many Jews and Christians seem to enjoy a tipple or more every now and then. We may, in future, return to the discussion of the use of alcohol in the Bible.

However, it is useful to remember the current recommendation of the National Health Service[24] and a Medscape review[25] that argue that “there is no safe level of alcohol consumption,” with alcohol being associated with higher risks of various cancers, neurotoxicity and cognitive decline such as with dementia. We shall cover this in a future episode looking at the history of alcohol.

[1] Genesis 11:27,28,31

[2] Genesis 17:5

[3] https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/3603/when-was-abraham-alive

[4] John 8:33


[6] Romans 4:12

[7] https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4213-chaldea

[8] Genesis 12:1

[9] Genesis 11:31, 12:4

[10] https://www.britannica.com/place/Assyria

[11] Genesis 24; 27:43; 28:1-5; 29:1-29

[12] Genesis 18:17-19

[13] Genesis 31:30-35

[14] Genesis 2:9

[15] Genesis 3:22

[16] Revelation 22:2

[17] https://www.gotquestions.org/mandrakes-Bible.html

[18] Genesis 30:37-43

[19] Genesis 31:10-11

[20] Proverbs 17:22

[21] Genesis 43:11

[22] Bacchiochi, S (1989). Wine in the Bible: A Biblical Study on the Use of Alcoholic Beverages, An Abridged Edition. Signal Press & Biblical Perspectives

[23] Proverbs 31:6

[24] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/

[25] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/965387?uac=166631AR&faf=1&sso=true&impID=3911689&src=WNL_infoc_211229_MSCPEDIT_Alcohol.Brain#vp_1