Did Great-Grandma Chew, Brew or Blaze? Yes, Our Ancestors Got High!
What would you do if you found evidence – via a personal letter or diary, or worse . . a newspaper article – about drug use by one of your ancestors? How typical was drug use and addiction by our ancestors?
Today, April 20th, is celebrated in some circles as “420 Day” which celebrates the use of cannabis (marijuana) for medicinal as well as recreational purposes. During my lifetime, much has changed in society as to the benefits as well as dangers of marijuana use. In many states, medical use of cannabis has been approved and is regulated much like prescription drugs. In addition some states have also made recreational marijuana available, access highly regulated and often serves as a revenue stream for cash-strapped municipalities.
No matter your views on marijuana, have you ever wondered if your ancestors used marijuana or other substances? Perhaps for medicinal purposes or even just to escape the maddening world around them? You might be surprised about drug use and our ancestors.
Our Early Ancestors and Drug Use
There are many stories of our early ancestors using a variety of plants with psychoactive substances mostly as part of religious or cultural practices. Practices including chewing of leaves such as the betel plant or even the coca plant. And consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote. As time progressed opium, tobacco, and marijuana were added to the list.
See Prehistoric High Times: Early Humans Used Magic Mushrooms, Opium via LiveScience and Psychoactive Substances in Prehistoric Times: Examining the Archaeological Evidence by Elisa Guerra-Doce.
Addiction: A Hazard for Our Ancestors
As society progressed in terms of technological innovations and the use of science rather than magic and religion to cure a variety of problems, addiction posed a great danger. Many drugs such as heroin were marketed as “harmless” and “non-addictive.” Keep in mind there was almost NO regulation of potions and curatives, many of which were either ineffective snake oil remedies or highly dangerous and addictive compounds.
Do you have letters or diaries recounting an ancestor’s use of medicines and drugs? It is quite rare to find such mentions, but those that can be found open a door to learning about new aspects of an ancestor’s life.
A few years ago I located a collateral relative who committed suicide due to a morphine addiction. In Madness Monday – Dr. W.L. Bartholomew Commits Suicide at my family history blog Destination: Austin Family, I recount the tale of a doctor and his downfall due to drug addiction:
Dr. W.L. Bartholomew Takes His Own Life at Middletown
Dr. W.L. Bartholomew a homeopathic physician, committed suicide last Friday at Middletown, N.Y., by discharging the contents of a shotgun into the right side of his neck. Dr. Bartholomew was also known as Dr. Barth, and had been engaged in the manufacture of a patent medicine. He ended his life while lying in bed at his boarding house. The deceased was aged 42 years. he came from Potsdam to Lowville about fifteen years ago and was engage to practice here two or three years. A dispatch from Middletown states that he was addicted to the morphine habit. Dr. Bartholomew was a well education young man, and when a resident of Lowville was held in high esteem.
Source: The Journal and Republican (Lowville, New York), December 1, 1904. Volume 46, Number 2, Page 5.
There was a huge surge in opioid addictions here in the United States and abroad during the 1890s and early 20th century. Companies like Sears and Bayer often advertised drugs containing compounds such as heroin, cocaine and more.
In What an 1890s Opioid Epidemic Can Teach Us about Ending Addiction Today author Haider S. Warraich. M.D. recounts:
In the ’90s, chronic pain was rampant in America. Opioids, which had previously been taboo, were suddenly being prescribed by doctors. A supposedly safer opioid had been developed which, as a physician wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, was “not a hypnotic” and carried no “danger of acquiring the habit.”
This movement created a monster, addicting millions of Americans to opioids. Global overproduction fueled even more demand and, as authorities clamped down, many of those addicted to these medicines turned to more potent ones, making an overdose only a minor miscalculation away.
Could a DNA Test Indicate If You Should Use Marijuana?
In a recent article How Technology Is Transforming the Cannabis Industry, PC Magazine author K. Thor Jensen discusses how DNA testing – specifically health testing – can be used to look at your genetic markers to predict you responsiveness to certain strains of cannabis:
Some companies are already making inroads into this new method of personalization. CannabisDNA administers a $129 saliva-based swab test that uses over 70 genetic markers to create a profile of your responses to notable cannabinoids, then produces a report that predicts your compatibility with different strains.
In the future, it’s possible that marijuana retailers will combine this testing methodology with bespoke product creation, combining isolates into individualized formulas that deliver a targeted experience for the user.
One DNA test specifically being sold for this purpose is the popular CannabisDNA test (sold by Pathway Genomics via Amazon). The test is sold as a way to “know your optimal CBD THC ratio to better deal with chronic pain, insomnia, skin health, stress, depression & anxiety.” Also see Can DNA Tests Help You Find the Best Weed? via Rolling Stone.
In addition, advances in DNA testing and results interpretation, could identify your likelihood of addiction and understand drug overdoses especially the current issue with opioid addiction.
Yes even during our ancestors’ time there was drug use, both to cure ailments or at least alleviate them, as well as for recreational purposes. The term “recreational” would not make much sense to my great-grandparents and other ancestors who live in the 19th century and mid-20th century. And the societal mores and views towards many of the substances listed above meant usage was not typically discussed . . . either in public or even in private letters and diaries.
It is possible through your family history research, and possibly the use of genograms, to identifying drug use among ancestors. Such stories and records could add a new facet to the complex life of your great-greats.
©2020, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.