The historical shift in the perception of opiates: from medicine to social menace

J Psychoactive Drugs. Jan-Mar 1990;22(1):53-62. doi: 10.1080/02791072.1990.10472197.


An examination of the origins of the laws prohibiting the use of opiates in the United States is provided. The primary focus is on how the development of these laws influenced a marked shift in the perception of opiates. Historically, opium and its derivatives have been perceived as efficacious medicines. However, during the past two centuries this perception has shifted to the point that contemporarily the opiates are commonly thought of as a social menace. This perception now outweighs the efficacious medicine perception to a substantial degree. A historical analysis indicates that this shift occurred not so much because the hazardous potential for addiction and overdose was discovered, nor because recreational use became widespread; rather, this shift was greatly influenced by underlying national economic conditions and concerns.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Asia
  • Asian Americans
  • China / ethnology
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Medical / history
  • Narcotics / history*
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Opium / history
  • Social Problems / history*
  • United States


  • Narcotics
  • Opium