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God’s Own Medicine

History’s unlearned lesson about opium-based pain relievers and addiction.

In 2008, overdoses from opium-based painkillers surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the most common cause of accidental death in America. The reason: we’ve failed to learn from history.

About 6,000 years ago, around the time of Abraham, the Sumerians settled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They invented cuneiform writing. They invented farming. And they discovered a plant called “hul gil,” or “the plant of joy.” Carl Linneaus, an eighteenth-century botanist, called it Papaver somniferum. William Osler, the founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, called it “God’s own medicine.” Today we call it the opium poppy.

One of the first to embrace opium was Hippocrates, who used it to treat insomnia. But it was a relatively unknown contemporary of Hippocrates named Diagoras of Melos who was the first to notice that many of his fellow Greeks had become addicted to the drug—hopelessly addicted. He warned against its use as opium users became opium addicts.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

The Selfish Gene revisited RICHARD DAWKINS JAMES RANDI Interview CSICon Las Vegas 2016 A Special Section God's Own Medicine PAUL A. OFFIT and more...