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Bizarre Drugs of History

by Will Long

August 20, 2021
bizarre drugs

Throughout history, we’ve experimented with all kinds of usable plants and fungi, ate random things, and injected weird stuff directly into our veins. Here’s a list of 4 bizarre drugs from history.

Chewing on coca

For hundreds of years, the coca leaf has remained a staple of indigenous people in the Andes regions of South America. When chewed, it releases a small amount of cocaine in its most base form. The cocaine content of the coca leaf is around 0.5-1% cocaine alkaloid. Cocaine is readily extracted from the leaf in a paste form, which is the preliminary form of the classic white powder coke you see in Scarface.

Even though coke is easily extracted through several steps, coca leaves have been chewed for centuries in their leaf form by the indigenous Andean natives. They use it sort of like we use coffee in the States. The natives call coca a food, and use it for appetite suppression, stimulating working activity, and as an entheogen to some degree. Coca itself can be addictive, but it possesses nowhere near the virulence of actual cocaine powder.

Mummy mia

Throughout ancient times, bitumen was another bizarre drug that was used as a remedy for all sorts of crazy ailments of ancient man. While bitumen of the kind the ancients referred to may or may not have had some legitimate medicinal use, the medieval misunderstanding to this degree of what worked had less than stellar results. For some strange reason, the dumb medieval folks in Europe thought that bitumen was present in mummies as an embalming material. It’s definitely not, and even the well-known ancient accounts of how mummification happened don’t attest to its use (not even a little bit!).

The funniest part of “mumia” being used is that the mummy suppliers in Egypt were literally making fun of them the entire time because they knew this “medicine” was total nonsense. In 1564, Ambroise Paré (1509-1590) was recorded as writing this hilarious passage behind Guy de la Fontaine’s (physician to King of Navarre) back:

“This wicked kind of drugge doth nothing to help the diseased…I have tryed an hundred times…[I] endeavour what I may, that it bee not prescribed by others [sic].”

The trade of mummy parts was so lucrative (even after the Egyptian government made it illegal) that a market for bodies to embalm appeared and their parts were sold off to those looking for mummies. Eventually these “doctors” would just buy up or loot bodies from the desert for their flesh. All that goes to show that you shouldn’t consume ground-up mummy parts.

Paracelsus’s brew: laudanum as a cure-all

Paracelsus is basically a polymath genius from his time. Not only did he make several key discoveries, but he introduced several new medical concepts to Europe that significantly pushed the practice of medicine forward significantly, most notably after his death. He was rather under-appreciated during his life.

So where does he fit in the story of bizarre drugs? Paracelsus came up with this interesting drug called laudanum that was a tincture of opium. He would recommend it as a cure-all for some of his patients and created an easier to take pill version of it. What was in the pill, you ask? Well, opium’s in the name along with a bunch of other stuff of no consequence like crushed pearl, amber, nutmeg, etcetera. Of course, as we know now, opium does have legitimate use medically as a painkiller and more. In a bizarre way, Paracelsus stumbled upon a snake oil formula that probably worked!

11 days of discovery

I bet you didn’t expect this one: it took only 11 days for Felix Hoffmann to discover a commercially viable form of heroin right after discovering aspirin. Originally discovered in England by Charles Romley Alder Wright in 1874, heroin was still regarded as a lab-only invention with no stable form.

Once Felix Hoffmann discovered a stable version, Bayer saw their intellectual property as a wonder drug. Bayer won’t readily admit to this being their creation, but they commercially sold heroin as an over-the-counter drug for almost 15 years until foreign governments came down hard on their intellectual property in the aftermath of World War I. Bayer initially marketed Heroin as a cough suppressant and substitute for morphine.

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About the Author

Will Long

Will Long

A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Long has been a writer for Landmark Recovery since 2021. He specializes in research and writing about substance abuse from a scientific and social perspective. Unearthing information from underexplored, far-flung corners of the Internet, Long’s passion is finding emerging trends in substance use and treatment that the public should know about.