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From a wake-up sip of coffee in the morning to smoking a cigarette, we all depend on some kind of chemical substance for a lift. But, make no mistake, addiction is nothing new in our world and has nothing to do with our modern times. Human’s taste for addictive substances states long back in our history in the earliest human records we have available today. 

Historically, the use of drugs had many purposes being used by priests in certain religious ceremonies, by healers for medical purposes, or by almost everybody who lived in a society where alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and even opium was accepted. However, make no mistake, the perception of drug use in ancient societies is nothing like it is nowadays. While today, most drugs are illegal in most countries of the world, back then it was socially acceptable to use them, be it for medical purposes or even entertainment. In some cultures, drugs even played a prominent role in the cultural, spiritual and social development of civilizations. 

However, studies show that the issue of loss of control in substance use, which is the equivalent of addiction these days, was already being discussed in the 17th century. And, it has since grown to become the problem our nations are facing today when fighting against drug dependence

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Drug use in the 18th century 

The use of psychoactive substances states back to the earliest moments of the humankind. However, substance abuse has been the most prevalent in the 18th century, followed by the 19th century when it has already reached the concept of public concern. 

In the 18th century, the colonial era combined with the industrial revolution and the beginning of international trade made substance addiction a global problem. There are studies showing that opium’s addictive potential has been recognized after a large number of Chinese people developed an addiction to the substance. However, what made people accept it as a problem were the efforts of the government to fight against and stop the use and sale of opium in China.

 In Europe, addiction has been first recognized as a sign of alcohol abuse among individuals from the working class. American physician Benjamin Rush, who was a writer in the 18th century, believed that alcohol abuse represents a loss of control which was a health condition. However, surprisingly, the physician didn’t attribute the disease to the drinker but to the drink focusing primarily on drinks such as strong liquors. 

Another example of drug abuse in the 18th century can be found in the British literary scene of this century. Academic studies show that both male and female stars in the literary scene used opium for its creative effects. However, it is very important to note that while male British writers of the 18th century used opium as a way to enhance their creative writing skills, the female writers used it as a comfort and a coping mechanism to deal with the demands of the artistic life. 

Regarding the opium use in the 18th century in Britain, academic studies also talk about the social acceptance of it. The concept of “addiction” was still unevolved at that time, however, there were clear views whether opium use was socially acceptable or not. Interestingly, this habit wasn’t necessarily considered negative based on whether or not someone was dependent on it but rather on the nature of the reasons to do so if they were either moral or immoral, selfish or selfless. 

The history of the word “addiction” 

The meaning of this concept has evolved immensely over time. Nowadays, the word “addiction” is a medical term that describes several characteristics of substance use including an unhealthy pattern of use of substances, abuse, and dependence. 

The term was firstly used in English-speaking countries and has later been adopted by other languages too. For example, in French, the words for addiction used to be “toxicomanie” or “assuetude”. However, over time, the French language has also adopted the term “addiction” for substance dependence. 

The meaning of the term “addiction” was very controversial being debated for a long time whether there is a difference between the term “dependence” and the term” addiction”. Later, it has been agreed that the term “addiction” will be understood as “strong dependence”. Over time, the term was used in many studies to define any type of substance abuse including drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. 

Drug abuse in the 18th century vs. today 

There are several aspects that make a huge difference between how drug abuse and rehabilitation is today and how it used to be in the 18th century. However, there are also a few similarities between the 21st century and the 18th-century drug use. 

First of all, while in the 18th-century drug use was a socially accepted habit, nowadays, dug use is mostly seen as a bad and dangerous habit in many parts of the world. Drugs are now illegal in most countries, there are just a few exceptions where drugs are legal and socially accepted. Nowadays, drug users are mostly perceived as dangerous people and are usually excluded from the society they live in. Whereas in the 18th century, since almost anybody used drugs, it was not necessarily a stigma as it is today. 

However, when it comes to drug rehabilitation, a lot has changed since the 18th century until today. Nowadays, there are many special rehabilitation clinics where drug users can get treatment from professionals. Whereas, back in the 18th century, since drugs were not seen as a problem, there was no such thing as rehabilitation for the users. 

However, apart from the differences in drug use in both of the centuries, there are also a few similarities. For example, both in the 18th and the 21st-century drugs are used for medical, recreational, and religious use in some parts of the world. Also, even in today’s world, the creative effects of psychoactive substances are still recognized and used for this purpose in those societies where drug use is legal. 

Opium, alcohol, tobacco, and many other psychoactive substances have been used by humans for a long time throughout history. However, over time, how substance abuse was perceived has changed completely from a socially accepted and popular habit to an illegal and dangerous habit.