Unusual Uses for Illicit Drugs

It is common knowledge that cocaine, heroin, cannabis, LSD and ecstasy are all illegal – and those who use, supply or have these drugs in their possession could face harsh penalties under the law.

But you may be surprised to learn that some of these now-illegal drugs were once socially acceptable, and were added to commercially produced foods and drinks, to alleviate health problems and even to produce clothing.

Here are some of the things that illegal drugs were once used for:


Cocaine is one of the most addictive illegal drugs.

The United States first enacted laws to restrict cocaine use in 1914, with the passage of the Harrison Act. That piece of law required cocaine and other narcotics to be prescribed by a doctor. Before those days, cocaine was commonly used as a painkiller and anaesthetic in dental and nasal operations. In fact, in the late 19th century, ‘Cocaine Toothache Drops’ were commercially produced and marketed as a remedy for treating teething pains in children.

But cocaine traditionally had other uses too – you may already be aware that the world’s most popular bottled drink, Coca-Cola, initially contained cocaine. The inventor of the drink, John Pemberton, reportedly formulated it to contain five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, claiming that the beverage was a ‘valuable brain tonic.’ The amount of cocaine in the drink was gradually reduced, before it was removed altogether.


The dangers associated with long-term heroin use are well known these days, but back in the early 20th century it was a different story altogether.

Pharmaceutical giant Bayer synthesised the drug in the late 19th century, and it soon became commercially available as a ‘non-addictive morphine substitute’ and as a cough medicine. In a day and age where pneumonia and tuberculosis were amongst the leading causes of death, heroin was lauded as an effective new treatment for these illnesses.

But as its highly addictive properties were realised, doctors became concerned about the wellbeing of patients, and many stopped prescribing heroin to treat common health problems.

In some countries, such as the UK, diacetylmorphine (the chemical name for heroin) is still prescribed to treat acute and chronic pain – although morphine is more commonly used for these purposes.


A well-known hallucinogen, LSD, is used recreationally by those wishing to have a psychedelic experience.

But before it gained notoriety for these effects, LSD was used experimentally by psychiatrists between the 1940’s and 1960’s, who were searching for a cure for various types of mental illness.

Many believed that LSD’s hallucinogenic effects could result in permanent changes to a patient’s personality and behaviours – but after years of experimentation, psychiatrists ruled out any possible medical benefits.

The US government also reportedly considered using LSD as a ‘chemical weapon.’

During the 1950s, the CIA launched Project MKUltra, which consisted of a number of illegal experiments on human subjects in order to identify ways to force confessions out of suspects.

Researchers reported that LSD ‘is capable of rendering whole groups of people, including military forces, indifferent to their surroundings and situations, interfering with planning and judgment, and even creating apprehension, uncontrollable confusion and terror.’

However, the Project was abandoned in the 1970s after documents were uncovered through Freedom of Information laws, sparking widespread public outrage.


The fight to legalise medicinal marijuana has gained traction in recent years – but its medicinal properties have been known for a long time.

Historical records indicate that the Vikings and Medieval Germans used cannabis as a form of pain relief during childbirth and for toothaches. The plant was also used in ancient China as a form of anaesthetic during surgery, and it was widely used in India to ease anxiety.

Besides medicinal uses, hemp fibres from the plant were traditionally used to produce material, which was then used in clothing and furnishings. Hemp clothing has gained popularity in recent years, with several manufacturers producing environmentally friendly t-shirts and pants which are available to the public.

Hemp is also used to produce oil-based colours for plastics, construction, and even in food.


Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, is the drug of choice for ravers around the world.

But it was initially developed in 1912 by pharmaceutical company Merck, which was attempting to develop a substance to stop abnormal bleeding. That company manufactured and tested the drug, but did not put it into production.

MDMA was synthesised again in the 1960s and 70s by an American scientist by the name of Alexander Shulgin, who began examining the psychoactive effects of the drug on humans.

Shulgin’s research indicated that it may serve a useful purpose in psychotherapy, and in the years that followed, several other psychotherapists promoted and prescribed the drug to patients, believing that they would benefit from the decreased sense of anxiety and increased communication.

But all this came to a head in 1985 when the drug was outlawed in the United States, with other countries to follow.

Ugur Nedim About Ugur Nedim
Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Drug Defence Lawyers.

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