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Drug addiction isn’t solely a modern social issue. The relationship between humans and psychoactive, narcotic, and analgesic substances stretches over millennia. Widely considered an “epidemic” in modern times, opiates became a household name in the 1700s, largely due to the actions of the British Empire. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain exported thousands of pounds of India-grown opium and sold it to China. They kept plenty for themselves as well. Opiates were often used medicinally as a cough suppressant and pain medication. Unfortunately, just like today, dependency was a common side effect of regular opioid use.


Many prominent military and political figures in the 1700s reportedly relied on opiates to manage their chronic pain, including Thomas Jefferson, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, and Samuel Johnson, the “father” of the English language.


While modern opioids are typically in the form of pills, powders, and injectables, in the 1700s, laudanum was the opiate of choice. Used primarily as a narcotic painkiller, laudanum is a tincture of morphine dissolved in alcohol.


Initially known as “Sydenham’s Liquid Laudanum,” named for its inventor, English physician John Sydenham, laudanum use was widespread in the 18th century due to its ubiquity and low cost.


China, Britain, and Opium Regulation


Opium has a rich history that involves China, Great Britain, and India. In the early 1700s, England took control of some of India’s largest opium-growing regions, Bengal and Bihar. England then began to export shipments of opium to China and other points in Southeast Asia, a practice they learned from the Portuguese.


The European opium trade was all about profit and finding a solution to the trade imbalance between China and Europe. The demand for many Chinese-made items, including silks and porcelain, was strong, but China had little need for European goods. Opium sales helped bridge the trade imbalance.


By 1767, England’s East India Company was shipping more than 2,000 chests of opium to China every year. This led to widespread opium addiction in China.


Thus, a series of regulations were put in place in an effort to combat opium addiction in China. First, the smoking of opium was outlawed. And in 1799, the Qing Dynasty banned the trade and cultivation of poppies. The dynasty’s move ultimately led to the 19th century’s Opium Wars.


Effects on the Brain


While it was widely understood that opium and laudanum eased pain caused by a variety of conditions, from gout to toothache and firearm injury, the way opiates worked remained a mystery until the 20th century.


Scientists believe that opioids bind to protein receptors, causing a euphoric sensation. Consequently, opioids alter brain function and contribute to high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the body. And high dopamine levels often equate to dependency and the risk of drug abuse.


Paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations are common symptoms of high dopamine levels. They’re also symptoms of opioid dependency, a condition that is ultimately treatable.


Addiction Treatment Over the Years


Today’s substance abuse nurses play a major role in breaking the cycle of addiction. The nursing continuum of care model starts with promotion and prevention and continues with treatment and recovery. In the 18th century, however, the concept of “addiction” was just beginning to take shape, primarily focused on alcohol dependency rather than laudanum or opium.


It was American physician Benjamin Rush who first proposed that alcohol is a disease requiring treatment, in 1784’s “Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits on the Human Mind and Body.” Those early alcoholics were sometimes sent to a hospital or inebriate asylum, and some Native American tribes formed sobriety circles and mutual aid societies to treat alcohol dependency.




The 1700s saw numerous peculiar medical treatment types, from bloodletting to the use of calomel, a toxic mercury chloride mineral, to treat a variety of ailments. Opium was seen as both a cure-all and a scourge, depending on the individual and situation. Certainly, the substance was a money maker for the East India Company, who turned a blind eye to addiction as they raked in cash from the opium trade. 


About The Author:

Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.