Today’s opioid crisis shares chilling similarities with past drug epidemics

 

While declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency Thursday, President Donald Trump said: “Nobody has seen anything like what’s going on now.”

He was right, and he was wrong.

Yes, this is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in the nation’s history. But there has been a long string of other such epidemics, each sharing chilling similarities with today’s unfolding tragedy.

There was an outbreak after the Civil War when soldiers and others became addicted to a new pharmaceutical called morphine, one of the first of many man-made opioids. There was another in the early 1900s after a different drug was developed to help “cure” morphine addiction. It was called heroin.

Cocaine was also developed by drugmakers and sold to help morphine addiction. It cleared nasal passages, too, and became the official remedy of the Hay Fever Association. In 1910, President William H. Taft told Congress that cocaine was the most serious drug problem the nation had ever faced.

Over the next century, abuse outbreaks of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs like methamphetamine, marketed as a diet drug, would emerge and then fall back.

“There are one or two or three wolves ahead of the pack that seem to be the most pressing threat, their jaws closest to you,” said David Courtwright, a University of North Florida historian who has written books on U.S. drug epidemics. “But there’s always a pack. The history is that the lead wolves keep shifting.”

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