In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Communism and the History of Drugs

We like to associate the phrase "Religion is the opium of the people" with Karl Marx. It affirms how "godless communism" has belittled our most sincere belief systems, likening them to an addictive diversion.

Yet, closer study shows this not to be the case. During Marx's time, opium was used primarily as a pain-reliever, not as a recreational drug. The true intent of his words can only be understood by seeing them in proper context: "Religion, he wrote, is the sigh of the hard-pressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, as it is the soul of soulless circumstance. It is the opium of the people."

As Marx has been turned on his head, so has our belief system, to the point where we may now safely say, "Opium and its ilk have become the religion of the people." Though we condemn the use of street drugs, we slavishly worship prescription opiates. They have long been an integral practice of our culture — a continuing effort to find heaven on earth without addiction or negative side effects.

Opium was just the beginning. It simply kicked things off. It was soon followed by morphine, in honor of Morpheus, Ovid's God of dreams and son of sleep, from the Greek morphe, "" or "shape" because the god gave dreams their insubstantial form.

Morphine, in turn, begat cocaine, thanks to a German pharmacist and chemist, Albert Niemann, who derived the crystalline form of the drug from the coca plant. He then arbitrarily added the Latin noun ending -ina to the plant's name. The drug's name was then adopted into French, the most common international language at the time, as cocaïna.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud proposed cocaine as an effective non-opiate detoxification from morphine addiction. But it unfortunately had its own addictive properties, as Freud only belatedly found out.

In the 1890s, Frederich Bayer (of noted aspirin fame) registered a new drug also thought to be a cure for morphine. He called it heroin, from the Greek heros, "hero" — because taking the drug made the user feel superhuman.

Everyone knows how successful a substitute it was. Heroin begat Demerol (1940s), Prozac, et al ('90s) — one drug morphing into the next.

And so it is that we as a culture continue the habit — in our never-ending, dopey quest for salvation.