Widely Used Drugs in the Old West

During the 19th century, drugs such as cannabis, opium, cocaine, and heroin were widely acceptable and available in the Old West. Men, women and even children were prescribed these drugs which could easily be purchased over the counter. These narcotics were believed to be the cure for ailments like cancer, insomnia, depression, tuberculosis and many more. They, however, led to a lot of violence in the Old West. In this article, we focus on the history of some of the drugs in the Old West.


Unlike CBD oil, cannabis causes a high due to its high content in THC.

Cannabis is one of the oldest drugs in the Old West that has been used by different cultures and religions over the years. Its first use dates back in 2727 BC in China where it was considered a legitimate medication. In fact, cannabis was mentioned in literature for the first time in Ancient China when they recorded its use.

The Ancient Greeks are known for using cannabis as a pain reliever rather than a cure. The use spread through the Romans, Islamic Empire and North Africa. In 1545, cannabis use spread to the Western hemisphere and was used in the Old West to make clothes and lassos because of its strong fibers. Before the American Revolution, it became a major export crop along with tobacco.

In 1611, the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia introduced the plant to States and started cultivating it for its strong fibers. It was then introduced in 1629 in New England and in Kentucky in 1775 and then to Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, California, and Nebraska in the 1800’s.

For thousands of years, cannabis has been used for religious and spiritual purposes, for instance to keep off witches. In 1830, it was used to treat insomnia and migraines, and it acted as a pain reliever. From 1850 to 1942, the United States Pharmacopoeia recognized it as a legal medicine by the name “Extractum Cannabis.”

Its popularity also grew when Fitz Hugh Ludlow published his book called the Hashish Eater. In the book, he elaborated his experience with the cannabis extract, and this led to hashish candy, private hashish clubs and hashish parlours in the United States. This led to the growth of cannabis use for recreational purposes.


Cocaine is a common drug used in the ancient times. This stimulant rather than narcotic drug has been in use since 3000 BC. It was first used in 1860s as a remedy for morphine addiction and could be chewed with chewing gum or tobacco. The Incha ancients who lived in the mountains chewed coca leaves in order to get their hearts racing and speed their breathing.

The coca leaves were also chewed by the Peruvians during religious ceremonies. They also used it as a local anaesthetic when nursing open wounds. Soldiers also used it to fight fatigue.


Opium originates from the milky sap of a flower known as opium poppy. Opium use began 3400 BC in lower Mesopotamia (Southwest Asia) where opium poppy was cultivated. The opium flower was commonly known as Hul Gil which means the “joy plant” by the Sumerians 5000 years ago. It was then passed on to the Assyrians (Middle East) and then to Egyptians. By the middle of the 19th century, the use for recreational opium became common. Due to its demand, many countries were able to grow and process opium, and its cost decreased.

The ancient societies used opium to relieve pain, calm crying children and induce sleep. In fact, it was mixed with alcohol to form laudanum which helped ease menstruation and childbirth pains. Its cultivation spread through the Mediterranean, to Asia and finally to China in 700 A.D. When the Chinese came to work on railroads in America, they brought with them the habit of smoking opium.

These drugs were very popular in the Old West as they were unregulated and legally sold until 1906. This is when the federal government recognized the dangers of these drugs and enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act. This came with various regulations in order to minimize the use of dangerous and addictive drugs. This includes the labelling of these drugs as dangerous and addictive. However, it was too late, and little has been done to regulate the drugs.

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About The Old West History Net

The Old West History Net is a historical course that attracts a wide range of visitors including students, history enthusiasts, travelers, and wild west admirers.