Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/September 1875/The Use of Narcotics

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THE indulgence in narcotics—something to dull, stupefy, and soothe the nervous system—is a predominant human weakness. Nature has been ransacked for narcotics. Tobacco, opium, betel-nut, Indian hemp, even some kinds of fungi, are employed for the desired object. When tobacco was first introduced into Europe, its use was nearly everywhere looked upon with dislike by the authorities. The efforts that were made to suppress it amounted to nothing less than persecution, and their want of success furnishes a curious illustration of the uselessness of legislative interference with the individual's legitimate freedom of action. It serves also to illustrate in some measure the strong hold which the taste for narcotics obtains over the mind, especially as tobacco is one of the mildest narcotics in use. Among our-selves, not to mention King James's well-known "Counterblast," many petty restrictions were laid on the sale of tobacco during that monarch's reign, and the import duty was raised from twopence to six shillings and tenpence a pound. In England and elsewhere, remonstrance and penalties were equally unavailing. Tobacco made its way steadily into favor, and is believed to be now in use among not less than 800,000,000 of the human race.

Measures of a severe nature have been tried in China to check the use of opium, and have been quite as unsuccessful. However apathetic the Chinese may be in respect to most things, they will not submit to the withdrawal of their favorite narcotic. But in case of so dangerous a poison, some restrictions are as much needed as they are on the sale of spirituous liquors among ourselves; for the effects of habitual excess are not less deplorable than those of habitual drunkenness. Of forty prisoners confined in the House of Correction at Singapore, thirty-five were found to use opium; and of these, seventeen, who had been in receipt of eighteen shillings a month as wages, spent twenty-four shillings for opium, the difference being obtained by theft. From a sanitary point of view, the results are equally sad. The confirmed opium-eater in the East seldom lives beyond the age of forty, and may be recognized at a glance by his trembling steps and curved spine, his sunken, glassy eyes and sallow, withered features. The muscles, too, of his neck and fingers often become contracted. Yet incurring even this penalty will enable him to indulge his vice only for a certain length of time. Unlike the healthy enjoyment which we derive from our appetite of hunger, and which Nature herself renews periodically, the enjoyment of the opium-eater gradually diminishes as his system becomes habituated to the drug. From time to time he must increase the quantity which he takes, but at length no increase will produce any effect. Under these circumstances he has recourse to a dangerous expedient: he mixes a small quantity of corrosive sublimate with the opium, the influence of which is thus for a time renewed. Then these means also fail; when the victim must bear the miserable condition to which he is reduced, until probably, sooner or later, he sinks into the grave. On the excitable temperament of the Malays and Javanese, a strong dose of opium causes a state of frantic fury amounting almost to madness, and this often ends in that homicidal mania which has been called "running amuck;" in other words, in the individual attacking with his crease or dagger every one whom he meets, so that it becomes necessary to shoot him down with as little compunction as we do a mad dog. In Java, opium is not allowed to be sold except in an adulterated form, the risk of these evil consequences being thus in some measure lessened.

So far as the effects of opium on the system are concerned, it is almost entirely a matter of indifference in what way the drug is used. Whether it be taken in the solid form of pills, in the liquid form of laudanum, or inhaled from a pipe as heated vapor, it speedily exerts its pernicious and almost irresistible influence over the mind; so that few possess the iron will needed to relinquish the habit when it has once been fairly acquired. How completely even the most intellectual and cultivated minds may become enslaved was well illustrated in the cases of Coleridge and De Quincey, whose highly-colored descriptions of their experiences are said to have been productive of much evil among the educated classes of this country. These descriptions must not, however, be regarded as safe criteria of the usual influence of opium on the colder temperament of the North European. According to Dr. Christison, it seldom produces a more striking effect on the Anglo-Saxon constitution than the removal of torpor and sluggishness, thus rendering the opium-eater a pleasant and conversable companion; but these small advantages, in turn, are purchased by a period of subsequent pain and depression, the misery of which it would be difficult to exaggerate.

Opium, besides acting as a narcotic, possesses a remarkable power as a restorative. By apparently checking the natural waste of nervous energy, it enables the system to support fatigue, beneath which it must otherwise inevitably have sunk. For this reason it is much used by the Halcarras, the palanquin-bearers and messengers of India, who journey almost incredible distances, furnished with nothing more than a bag of rice, a little opium, and a pot to draw water from the wells. The Tartar couriers also use it to sustain them, when compelled to travel night and day in crossing the arid deserts of Central Asia; and in some parts of the East it is administered as a restorative even to horses.

It is difficult to come to any definite conclusion as to whether the physical character of Eastern races who habitually use opium as a narcotic has deteriorated in consequence. No doubt the general belief is that even moderate indulgence must necessarily be injurious, and it is easy to point to the enervated character of the Turks and other Oriental races as a probable result of the habit. But at the same time it is a disputed point among physiologists how far this belief correctly represents the truth. The opinions of many men well acquainted with the East might be quoted in opposition to it; for example, Dr. Eatwell, formerly of the East India Company's service, in writing to the Pharmaceutical Journal, has affirmed that, as regards the great mass of the Chinese, no injurious effects of the opium they consume can be noticed, the people being generally a muscular and well-formed race. Dr. Macpherson has given similar testimony in respect to the Chinese, and Dr. Burnes in respect to the natives of Scinde and Cutch; while, on the other hand, Dr. Little, of Singapore, is of opinion that the native population of that island would be in danger of becoming extinct from the use of opiates, were it not constantly recruited by immigration. It is, however, evident that the question can only be satisfactorily answered by knowing the real extent to which opium-eating prevails among the different Eastern populations, and of this no reliable statistics can be obtained.

There is a similar want of definite information in respect to the United Kingdom. Attention was partially drawn to the subject so long ago as 1844, by an inquiry that was made into the state of large towns in Lancashire; and since that time there is every reason to believe that the evil has largely augmented. The increase in the quantities of the raw material imported would alone be sufficient to render this probable; for, while in 1852 the importation amounted to 114,000 pounds, it had grown to 356,000 pounds in 1872. No doubt a large portion of this enormous quantity is employed in the manufacture of morphia or other alkaloids, and is either exported or employed for legitimate medicinal purposes; but it is difficult to account for an increase in twenty years of 200 per cent., except on the supposition that the drug is more largely used as a narcotic than is generally believed. The facility with which this form of vice can be concealed renders direct evidence on the subject difficult to obtain; but such evidence as can be procured tends to prove that the above supposition is correct. We have recently been informed by the medical attendant to the workhouse in one of our larger cities, that a week rarely passes without a case of opium-eating coming to his knowledge among those who seek admission to the workhouse; and that he has known women, when suffering from the depression consequent upon their enforced abstinence, even go down on their knees to beg that he would administer to them an opiate. Again, there is reason to believe that opium is a favorite stimulant with many underfed and overworked artisans and laborers; and from inquiries made by parochial officials, clergymen, and others, this would appear to be especially the case in agricultural districts. In the fenny districts of Lincolnshire, a belief being prevalent that opium acts as a preservative against the effects of a damp climate, many of the inhabitants have in this way become addicted to its use.

Another and even more reprehensible form of the opium evil among the lower classes is to be found in the practice of administering soothing mixtures to young children for the purpose of keeping them quiet. In one instance, a mother, because her child was unwell, has been known to place a piece of crude opium in its mouth to suck, the death of the child being naturally the consequence; and though cases of such gross and culpable ignorance as this are no doubt rare, it is certain that the administration of soothing sirups and cordials is too commonly resorted to. In large manufacturing towns, where mothers are often employed in factories during the day, their infants are frequently placed for the time in the care of nurses; and these women seldom feel any compunction in administering an opiate to a child who is troublesome. It cannot be too widely known how greatly such a practice tends not only to the direct increase of infant mortality, but also to the permanent injury of the constitution, by inducing convulsions and other similar nervous diseases.

Opium in one of its forms enters largely into the composition of many of the pain-killers and patent medicines so freely advertised for domestic use in the present day, and for this reason the greatest care is needed in having recourse to any of them. Taken, perhaps, in the first instance, to alleviate the torments of neuralgia or toothache, what proves to be a remedy soon becomes a source of gratification, which the wretchedness that follows on abstinence renders increasingly difficult to lay aside. The same must be said of narcotics, such as bromide of potassium and hydrate of chloral, frequently resorted to as a remedy for sleeplessness: the system quickly becomes habituated to their use, and they can then be relinquished only at the cost of much suffering. Indeed, the last-mentioned of these two drugs obtains over the mind a power which may be compared to that of opium, and is, moreover, liable to occasion the disease known as chloralism, by which the system ultimately becomes a complete wreck.

Looking at the whole question of the medicinal use of narcotics, it is perhaps not too much to say that they should never be employed except with the authority of a competent medical adviser.

Turning; again to the narcotics of savage or but semi-civilized races, we find a species of fungus (Amanita muscaria) employed by the natives of Kamtchatka and the adjoining provinces of Siberia. It grows plentifully in parts of Kamtchatka, and is there generally prepared for use in several ways. The inhabitants either gather it during the hottest months, and hang it in strings to dry in the open air, or leave it to ripen and dry in the ground, when it possesses stronger narcotic qualities. Small-sized specimens, covered with warty excrescences and deeply-colored, are also considered more valuable than the smooth pale ones. Sometimes it is eaten in soups and sauces, or is taken mixed with the juice of the whortleberry; but the more usual method is to swallow it whole, rolled into the form of a pill, and a single large-sized toadstool thus taken is sufficient to cause the narcotic effects during a whole day. These bear a very close resemblance to those of ordinary intoxication, and, like them, often end in complete insensibility. Whatever may be the natural temperament of the individual shows itself with unusual distinctness. A man who is fond of music or of talking will be constantly singing or chattering; and secrets often thus slip out, the disclosure of which is the source of much subsequent trouble. In this form of narcotism, too, the power of estimating the size of objects is temporarily destroyed, so that a man wishing to step across a straw or a small twig will raise his foot as though about to step across the trunk of a tree.

The Siberian fungus is not the only narcotic in which this last peculiarity is found. Similar erroneous impressions are caused by the Indian hemp, which, though it is used in Southwestern Asia, and indeed in the Brazils as well, is more properly the narcotic of the African Continent, where it is known to the native races from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope, It is the same plant that is grown in Europe for the sake of its valuable fibre; for, though probably indigenous to India, it is able, like the potato and the tobacco plant, to adapt itself to a great variety of climates, and is grown even in the north of Russia. Its narcotic virtues depend on a resinous substance contained in the sap; and this is much more abundant in tropical climates than it is in temperate. Indeed, the European plant is almost devoid of it, though it possesses a strong odor which has been known to make people ill who have remained long in a hemp-field. Thus, when the dried plant is either smoked or eaten, its effects are both rapid and powerful. In Morocco, where the dried flowers are generally smoked, a single pipe not larger than an ordinary tobacco-pipe is sufficient to intoxicate. Among the Arabs and Syrians, the usual method is to boil the leaves and flowers in water mixed with butter to the consistence of a sirup, which is called hasheesh, and, as it has an extremely disagreeable taste, is eaten in a confection of cloves, nutmegs, and other spices. But however the narcotic may be used, the pleasure it affords is much the same in character. It has been described as consisting in "an intense feeling of happiness, which attends all the operations of the mind. The sun shines on every thought that passes through the brain, and every movement of the body is the source of enjoyment." But the most remarkable peculiarity of the Indian hemp has yet to be mentioned: a dose of the resin has been known to occasion that strange condition of the nervous system called catalepsy, in which, notwithstanding the force of gravity, the limbs of the unconscious patient remain stationary in whatever position they may be placed.

The use of the coca-tree as a narcotic in Peru-and Bolivia is of very great antiquity. When the Spaniards landed under Pizarro, they found the natives chewing the dried leaves, in exactly the same way in which they have continued to chew them down to the present day. Efforts were indeed made, soon after the subjugation of the country, to put a stop to the practice, for the plant had acted an important part in the Peruvian religious ceremonies, and its use was looked upon by the conquerors as an obstacle to the spread of Christianity. Nevertheless, the Indians persevered in spite of every prohibition and severity. Before long, too, the owners of mines and plantations discovered that it was to their interest to connive at the habit, as, with its aid, their laborers were able to perform more work on a given quantity of food than they could do without it. It has thus gradually become the universal custom to allow from fifteen to thirty minutes, three or four times a day, for the purpose of chewing. At these times the first object of the Indian is to make himself as comfortable as possible, for the coca fails to produce its effect unless the chewer be perfectly quiescent. He stretches himself at full length in the shade, on a couch of dry leaves or soft turf, and, rolling a few of the coca-leaves into a ball, conveys them into his mouth; adding immediately, to bring out the full flavor, a small quantity of unslacked lime, or of the alkaline ashes of certain plants. When thus engaged, the apathy he displays to every thing around him is something marvelous. No entreaty on the part of his employer will induce him to move, and, if he be a confirmed coquero, he is indifferent even to drenching rain or the roar of wild animals in the neighboring thicket. In what way the pleasures of the coca-leaf manifest themselves is not known, but they must evidently be of a very seducing kind, thus to render men insensible to personal danger.

Notwithstanding the wide prevalence of the use of narcotics, little or nothing is known of the way in which their different effects are produced on the system; and the problem is complicated by the number of active substances that enter into their composition. Opium, besides other more ordinary ingredients, contains no fewer than eleven peculiar organic compounds, all of which are believed to share in producing its usual effects. It has, however, been noticed that many symptoms of narcotism bear a close resemblance to those of insanity. The wild laughter of a man under the influence of the deadly nightshade cannot be distinguished from that of a manaic, and the false impressions as to the size of objects, caused by the Indian hemp and the Siberian fungus, are a permanent feature in the malady of many lunatics. It has been suggested by Dr. Carpenter that much light might be thrown on the connection between the mind and the body by studying the phenomena of drunkenness, and it seems probable that those of narcotism in different parts of the world might be made to yield equally rich results. Of one thing we may be quite certain. The use of tobacco has become a positive vice. The wastefulness of money which it causes, without a compensatory advantage, is alone deplorable.—Chambers's Journal.