13 Drugs Before They Were Famous

As a member of a generation of people who were raised being brainwashed by DARE and their ilk, I was pleasantly surprised to find out later in life that not all drugs are evil, and in fact, some are rather fun even though they are illegal. What I didn’t realize was just how legal of a background so many popular drugs had, and often in ways I never would have imagined.

13. Coca Wine

Initially marketed under the title Vin Mariani, coca wine was a popular tonic in the 1800s, pretty much the Victorian-era version of Red Bull, promising to pep you up, and keep you going. It was made from Bordeaux wine treated with coca leaves, and the ethanol in the booze helped extract the fun parts out of the foliage. Vian Mariani packed a whopping 7.2mg of cocaine for every fluid ounce of wine, creating a rather fun mix of uppers and downers that would remain popular into the 80s, when mixing booze and coke reached its zenith. Just how big was coca wine? Queen Victoria was a fan, and Thomas Edison claimed it helped him stay awake. At least two Popes were known imbibers, and Pope Leo XIII even appeared in an ad for the stuff. This stuff significantly preceded the much well known stimulant drink of Coca-Cola, and had a hell of a lot more of a kick.

12. Laudanum

More than just a Roman camp in Asterix, laudanum — or more properly, tincture of opium — was a wildly popular over the counter medicine. Up until the 20th century, you could pop into any well-stocked pharmacy, and pick up a bottle to use as an analgesic or cough suppressant. Or just, you know, get high as a fucking kite. This stuff was everywhere, and was an alcoholic herbal preparation containing 10% powdered opium — and tasted like ass. The weird thing? You can still get a prescription for the stuff — it’s an incredibly powerful anti-diarrhea drug, and is very useful in withdrawal syndromes for heroin babies. However, it’s prohibitively expensive, and even if you do have a prescription and know someone who stocks it, it’ll set you back $750 for a 4oz bottle, and I don’t think your insurance will help much.

11. Marinol and Cesamet

Medical marijuana is something of a cause célèbre at present, galvanizing all sorts of legislation and interest around the USA as people realize just how freaking useful it is for treating a whole raft of issues, not the least of which is all the horrible side effects of chemo. So, what do you do if you’re a doctor who thinks cannabis is the best treatment for your patient, but it’s not legal in your neck of the woods? It turns out there are a number of synthetic cannabinoids on the market, including Marinol and Cesamet, both of which are legal in the USA. They’re used to treat everything from chronic pain to nausea to PTSD — pretty much everything that pot is actually useful for. The jury’s still out on if they’re more or less functional than the illicit version, but they’re certainly more pure, being sold only in a refined form.

10. Bindeez and CD Cleaner

While not as common in the USA, 1,4B had a brief flirtation with notoriety in New Zealand and Australia in the early days of the millennium. 1,4-Butanediol is converted to GHB in the body, aka liquid ecstasy. The funny thing is that it’s an industrial solvent, and was able to be obtained through all sorts of semi-legal ways. In New Zealand it was sold semi-knowingly as “cd cleaner” under the brand Puritech, which it did an admirable job of, assuming you didn’t mind paying through the nose for keeping your discs shiny. More famously, the Australian toy Bindeez (aka Aqua Dots, Beados or Pixos) were accidentally treated with the drug instead of the harmless 1,5-pentanediol at their manufacturing plant in China, leading to a 4.2 million toy recall in the USA alone after a number of kids got sick from eating the beads. It also lead to a spate of teenagers buying the things in a desperate attempt to get high.

9. Sernyl

Of all the horror stories around drugs bandied about during Middle School, the ones that all really stuck with me were about PCP, and it resolutely remains one of the drugs I would never, ever have anything to do with. Rather than seeing the rumors dissipate with further knowledge, they’ve only gotten worse. Remember when rapper Big Lurch got high on the stuff and ate his girlfriend’s face? Yeah. It makes you crazy. Which makes it even more ironic that when it was being used medicinally it was as an anesthetic called Sernyl — named for the serenity it gave you. It was only used for a couple of years in WWII before being shelved until the 50s due to side effects. Again in 1953 it popped up, before being shelved again for the obvious issues it caused, and then again a few years later in veterinary practices before getting pulled again.

8. Amyl nitrate, the cyanide antidote

Amyl nitrate is known for pretty much one thing only: being used by gay guys to relax their sphincter for easier anal sex — though to be fair, anyone can use it to the same effect. Next time your girlfriend turns you down for anal on the grounds that you’re too damn big, offer her a popper. I digress. Amyl nitrate is arguably the most useful drug on this list, and in a very specific circumstance, you’d be rather happy to have it on hand. Amyl nitrate is an antidote for cyanide. That’s right, if you’re ever chasing down a spy through a crowded European nightclub, and he swallows a suicide capsule just as you catch him, just grab a popper from the nearest club kiddy, have him inhale, and then you’ll be able to interrogate him at length. Or “interrogate”. Good lord, I just wrote the premise for a night of very kinky roleplaying, didn’t I?

7. Poppy Tea

Everyone knows that opium comes from poppies, right? And that gets refined into a bunch of other fun and useful drugs for personal and clinical use. One of the oldest — and most difficult to accurately dose — ways to harvest this is in the form of poppy tea. Traditionally, it’s made up of the stems and pieces of the dried flower, which you can pick up from some scrapbooking and flower arranging sellers. Alternatively, and much more difficult to do safely, is making a tea from poppy seeds by soaking them in lemon juice to extract any remnants of something fun. By all accounts, regardless of the formulation it’s just about intolerably bitter, very easy to take too much, but it will make you happy, sleepy, and help stop diarrhea. I’m not going to tell you how to make it, but Erowid is there for a reason. Dubiously legal, ancient, and potentially unsafe. Sounds like a good bet to me!

6. Amphetamines for asthma

Amphetamines are pretty well known for being used as alertness pills for a very long time, but what most people don’t realise is that it also had an incredibly long life as an asthma treatment. Discovered in 1931, the over the counter treatment shipped 10 million units in just seven years, and it remained incredibly easy to get hold of until the early 50s. While arguably medicinal, people quickly learned that it perked you up substantially, and would crack open the inhalers to get at the roll of paper covered with the drug inside. The coolest thing? Airlines used to hand them out during landing to make you more comfortable — whether this was due to helping pressure change, or just getting you happy and high is up for debate.

5. Heroinâ„¢

These days, the term heroin is used exclusively for the illicit substance, but heroin was originally developed by pharmaceutical giant Bayer who trademarked the name based on the German word “heroisch” (heroic). After the Treaty of Versailles, they lost both the trademark for heroin and aspirin, which is why both names are used so freely today. The funniest part? Heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute, perfect for replacing the older drugs in medicine and help weaning addicts from their high of choice. Embarrassingly, heroin is much quicker acting than morphine, and arguable more addictive — leading to the almost instant appearance of people hooked on the stuff.

4. LSD psychotreatment

Long before those crazy hippies were hitting LSD in a big way, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was talking its benefits far and wide. Cary Grant, one of the greatest actors of all time, was a major acid-head. Well, sort-of. Cary Grant — aka the most dapper man on the fucking planet — was attempting to fix his poorly defined mental health issues, and in the early 60s he took LSD at a prestigious clinic in California, which brought him inner peace. There’s a wonderful write-up by Grant about his experiences here, but I’ll just use this one quote, which I absolutely love:

“One becomes a battleground of old and new beliefs. Of nightmares beyond description. I passed through changing seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense hate and love, a mosaic of past impressions assembling and reassembling; through terrifying depths of dark despair replaced by glorious heaven-like religious symbolisms. Session after session. Week after week.

I learned may things in the quiet of that small room. I learned to accept the responsibility for my own actions, and to blame myself and no one else for circumstances of my own creating. I learned that no one else was keeping me unhappy but me; that I could whip myself better than any other guy in the joint.”

3. Coca-Cola

Okay, okay, I have to include this one. Everyone knows it, some dismiss it as an urban legend, it’s one of the most widely discussed early drug facts around. Early Coca-Cola used an extract of the coca leaf to perk you up. That’s right, small amounts of cocaine. In fact, Coke is currently just about the only product you can buy legally which still uses coca leaves in its production, but they use a special variety without any of the fun stuff tucked inside, grown in New Jersey. Originally Coke used kola nuts (for caffeine) and coca leaves (for cocaine), hence the name. The first recipe called for 5oz of coca leaves per gallon of syrup, leading to 9mg of cocaine per glass. By 1891, this had dropped to a tenth of this amount, and by 1904 they were using leaves with only residual traces of the drug.

2. 7Up

Everyone knows that Coke had cocaine, but oddly, almost no-one realizes that 7Up used to be chock full of lithium, that rather popular mood stabilizing drug. It was originally titled the significantly less memorable “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda,” which doesn’t seem to have quite the same ring as 7Up, does it? It had lithium citrate in it, and was at least partly marketed as a hangover cure, which didn’t get removed until 1950. That’s right, your grandparents were knocking back lithium in their soda pop. We still don’t know why he chose 7Up as a name, but we are sure that it was incredibly popular thanks to its mood altering abilities. Man, I wish you could still get it, something to even out the peaks and troughs of day to day life in a soda? That’s awesome.

1. MDMA as a religious experience

Before the club kiddies got their hands on MDMA and it became Ecstacy — the scourge of moralists everywhere — there was a brief intersection where a large number of intensely religious people used it to commune with God. And I’m not talking about your standard neo-Shaman type who takes peyote or mushrooms and has visions quests and hangs out with spirit animals. We’re talking Catholic monks, Buddhist monks, rabbis. Here, check out this book, and look at chapter 23. It’s an incredible interview with a rabbi about the drug. Or there was a Benedictine monk who said “Ecstasy opens up a direct link between myself and God.” Check out these two pieces, both by Nicholas Saunders. These people experienced something at the same time both incredibly similar and incredibly different to people who want to just dance and fuck on the drug. A loss of boundaries, a removal of falsity and self-doubt. It’s the same side of an opposite coin, and I think better than anything else illustrates just how weird our views on what drugs can be used for are.

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