5 Delightfully Cavalier Ways Illegal Drugs Were Dispensed As Medicine
We’re coming close to winning the War on Drugs, and by “we,” we mean “drugs.” The world is moving toward decimalization and legalization and ultimately to everyone becoming safely high at 1 p.m. every day. But if you think the arc of history bends only one way, toward greater acceptance of drugs, you’re wrong, and probably high. Many drugs were instead prized for their medicinal qualities and only later became taboo. And some of these medicinal applications actually sound a lot crazier than just taking the stuff for fun.
Around a decade ago, the media warned parents of a dangerous new teen trend: vodka tampons. Like most dangerous new teen trends, the media just made this one up. The idea was that if you soak a tampon in vodka and then insert it into yourself, you’ll absorb the booze much more quickly than by drinking, since the vagina (usually) isn’t already filled with your half-digested lunch. That logic never made much sense, for various reasons.
But even if 2010s teens weren’t using tampons as drug vectors, you know who were? Some women in 19th-century New Orleans. If you suffered from cramps back then, you had the option of turning to a proto-tampon, soaked in a drug solution. You could get one soaked in opium. Or you could try one soaked in belladonna, which was widely used as a depressant back then but which is better known today as a deadly poison.
We imagine that the device they used was a little different from modern tampons, which are designed to absorb, not to release, and which aren’t terribly convenient to insert when soaked. We still have various questions about this dubious remedy. On the other hand, opium tampons weren’t sold as a strictly scientific device. They were a form of voodoo, and there’s no arguing with voodoo.
Philopon, the Crystal Meth Appetite Suppressant
Amphetamines were invented in Germany, and methamphetamine was invented in Japan. Then came World War II, when meth was a useful pick-me-up throughout the Axis. We’ve told you, for example, about how one Finnish soldier went a little overboard with his meth rations one day and got superpowers.
Japan dispensed meth under the brand name Philopon. Soldiers used it during the war, and afterward, it was available over-the-counter for anyone who needed a little extra energy to get them through their day. Starting in 1951, following an epidemic of meth addiction, the government pulled back a little and started regulating Philopon, formally declaring it a medicine.
Plenty of other countries had their own meth issues around this time, but Japan just had so much of the stuff, first as a surplus from the war and then cranked out by the various ready meth factories. One big reason people bought Philopon? As an appetite suppressant. If you felt less hungry during the day and ate less, that meant you could devote more time to working, which was what you really wanted to do.
Forced March, the Cocaine Tablet
Cocaine, too, was good for suppressing your appetite. Explorers brought some along when braving the Antarctic at the start of the 20th century. Of course, suppressing your appetite meant something a little different in this setting. You weren’t trying to save time or lose weight. You were, potentially, trying to take your mind off the fact that you were starving to death.
Explorers took cocaine by the tablet or by the bottle, a preparation of cocaine and caffeine known as Forced March. The phrase “forced march” might sound sinister to you, but before some of the 20th century’s horrors, people took it to mean “forcing yourself to march, you indefatigable hero you” rather than “someone forcing you to march to your doom."
When they weren’t popping cocaine pills for endurance, explorers like Ernest Shackleton were dripping liquid cocaine into their eyes, to combat snow blindness. Even today, a hospital might dribble a little cocaine in your eye, though now it’s about relieving severe pain. If you need a cocaine fix, stick a fork in your eye and head to your local hospital — you have a non-zero probability of getting some coke, along with going blind.
‘2001’ Was Made on Legal Heroin
2001: A Space Odyssey is unique in that everyone knows the film, everyone knows the director, but few people can name a single cast member. Even those of you with a good memory for faces probably can’t identify the actor behind Moonwatcher, the chief man-ape.
That’s Dan Richter, and he had no film experience before this movie. Instead, he was a professional mime, whom Stanley Kubrick pulled aboard because this performance required a lot more miming than skilled diction. Richter brought his talents for expressive movement to the set. He also brought heroin.
He was a heroin addict, as was his wife, and as part of the process of weaning them off the drug, Britain prescribed them doses of heroin, legally. He first hid this from Kubrick, then disclosed all, and Kubrick asked him to describe the experience of being high. A lot of people thought the final segment of 2001 was made on drugs, but the chemically enhanced part was really the part where an ape gets creative with a bone.
Richter followed up 2001 by doing not a whole lot of acting at all. He did, however, befriend John Lennon and Yoko One and supply them with heroin, so the man had clearly found his calling.
Alcoholics Anonymous Suggested LSD to Get You to Stop Drinking
If someone’s battling alcoholism, hard drugs sound like a dangerous temptation they must resist. If alcohol’s bad, the illegal stuff must be even worse, right?
That’s not necessarily true, and the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous had some very pointed views about one specific drug: LSD. In the 1950s, Bill Wilson tried LSD, and he found it very helpful. LSD was legal at this time, but it still provided a much stronger high than alcohol, so you’d think the AA founder would reject it, but no. For one thing, LSD isn’t addictive. For another, he found that tripping provided a transformative, spiritual experience. Alcoholics Anonymous says you must submit to a higher power. Many people take this to mean God, but Wilson said it can also mean acid.
Incidentally, at the very end of Wilson’s life, temptation proved too much for him. On his deathbed, repeatedly, he asked for whiskey (LSD had now been illegal for three years). The nurse refused his request, ensuring he died with his 36 years of sobriety intact. A higher power can mean God, or it can mean LSD, or it can mean a stubborn nurse.