America’s drug addiction epidemic is 100 years old. A newspaper writer gives us a history lesson.

America’s drug addiction epidemic is 100 years old. A newspaper writer gives us a history lesson.

Addiction epidemic: Americans’ problems with pain meds go back a century


Staff Writer

More than 100 years ago, Dr. John Witherspoon, who became president of the American Medical Association, urged the medical community to avoid widespread narcotics use.

It “stalks abroad throughout the civilized world,” he wrote in a 1900 issue of the Medical Association journal. “(It is) wrecking lives and happy homes, filling our jails and lunatic asylums.”

Now, 112 years later, prescription pills have become a staple of modern medical treatment, promising pain relief to millions of patients, but as rates of prescription drug abuse and pills-related deaths spike, patients, doctors and families are left to consider Witherspoon’s warning.

“For most physicians, it’s always been about the patients,” Dr. Lynn Webster, president-elect of the American Association of Pain Medicine, said.

“Our belief was if you were using it for the right purpose, it would help deal with pain and most people would not be harmed,” Webster said. “But, frankly, I don’t believe we appreciated … how harmful (the pills) could be to so many people.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, when Witherspoon was writing, doctors were dealing with another potential threat in the medical community.

Researchers had recently released a synthetic form of heroin known as diacetylmorphine to help address pain and cure morphine addiction. Within several years, pharmaceutical companies had released several versions and forms of the drug, including tablets, lozenges and liquids. But after several years, doctors found the drug, marketed as “Heroine,” to be just as addictive and damaging as morphine itself.

For this reason, doctors and medical professionals shied away over the following decades from opiate-based pain killers.

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