Science & Technology

5 Illegal Drugs That Were Once Sold as Medicine

As the old saying goes, "They don't make 'em like they used to!" Cars hardly last a decade now and if your toaster breaks, you just go get a new one. Still, in some cases, it's probably good that they don't make 'em like they used to. Few people long for the days of lead paint and asbestos, after all. And while some may lament the long process it takes for new drugs to hit the market, it's a whole lot better than what pharmacists used to dish out as medicine. Here are five drugs that, while currently illegal, used to be used as medicine.


Better known as the popular party drug ecstasy, MDMA was originally patented in 1913 by the German chemical company Merck. Though often cited as a would-be diet pill, MDMA was actually patented as a helper compound for synthesizing a completely different drug formulated to stop bleeding. It wasn't actually tested as a medical compound on its own until 1927 when a researcher named Dr. Max Oberlin tried it out in his search for a compound with adrenaline-like effects. While MDMA was more toxic than other compounds he tried, he recommended that others "keep an eye on this field."

Thanks to the research of chemist Alexander Shlugin, who would later be known as the "father of ecstasy," the drug saw a revival of interest in the 1970s despite it not having been approved by the FDA. The drug was felt to have helpful qualities in a therapeutic setting, allowing people to open up better in therapy. But in 1985 the FDA banned it, declaring it to have no accepted medical use whatsoever. That wasn't the end of its medical life, however: The FDA changed its mind in 2017, and clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy are being carried out as we speak.

2. Heroin

Believe it or not, heroin was once thought to be a non-addictive substitute for morphine. First synthesized in 1874 by London chemist Charles Romley Wright, heroin was a crystalline variation of morphine — in fact, it was first known as diacetylmorphine. Wright found no use for it, but in 1898, Heinrich Dreser of the Bayer pharmaceutical company picked up where Wright left off and demonstrated the drug's ability to relieve pain and ease respiratory ailments. The results were good enough for Bayer to start producing it commercially and give it a brand name: Heroin.

The drug's popularity quickly began to rival that of penicillin, and it was prescribed for everyone from elderly tuberculosis patients to children with asthma. After a few years on the market, however, its addictive qualities became clear and Bayer stopped producing it in 1913. By 1920, it was banned outright.

3. Cocaine

The urban legend is true: Cocaine was in the original recipe for Coca Cola when pharmacist John Pemberton created it in 1885. That might be shocking, but it's hard to blame the guy. At the time, cocaine was legal and used in a variety of drugs for toothaches, sore throats, and other painful conditions thanks to its effectiveness as an anesthetic. Sigmund Freud was even known to prescribe it for impotence. But even then, it was nothing new. Chewing on coca leaves ⁠— the source of cocaine ⁠— was popular with the Incas hundreds of years ago. But around 1900, the popular, upper-class drug began to be recognized for its dangers and the tide began to turn. In 1903, Pemberton removed it from his recipe and by 1922, it was completely banned in the United States. Still, some experts say that when it comes to the development of modern anesthetics, we have cocaine to thank.

4. Chloroform

That's right, the magical rag-soaking chemical that dozens of movie villains have used to knock the hero out cold was once a pain-relieving, cough suppressing miracle drug. (Also, it totally doesn't work the way it's depicted in movies). Chloroform was actually discovered by three totally unrelated people almost simultaneously in 1831: Justus von Liebig in Germany, Eugene Soubeiran in France, and Samuel Guthrie in the United States — the last of whom did so by combining whiskey with chlorinated lime in his effort to make a pesticide. Yum.

Despite these dubious ingredients, in 1847 a Scottish physician named Sir James Young Simpson thought chloroform could have a medical application. He discovered that by putting chloroform onto a sponge and breathing in the vapors, one — namely, himself — would be knocked out. The drug proved to be a popular, safer alternative to ether and was used as an anesthetic for over a hundred years. However, there was a risk of cardiac arrest that did occasionally kill people, and eventually, even safer anesthetics like nitrous oxide were discovered that led to its decline in popularity. The final nail in chloroform's coffin came when the U.S. National Cancer Institute discovered that it caused cancer in rats, and in 1976, the FDA banned the drug.

5. Quaaludes

This one-time cure for insomnia was repopularized in recent years thanks to "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, in which his drug-addicted, morally bankrupt character describes its origins as a sedative that was "prescribed to stressed-out housewives with sleep disorders." But before it was a sleep aid, it was a failed malaria cure: Its main ingredient, methaqualone, was developed in 1955 by a researcher in India named M. L. Gujral looking to do his part in the worldwide fight against the mosquito-borne disease. That was a dud, but it only took a bit more testing for scientists to discover that it was effective as a sedative and even go so far to suggest it as a non-addictive insomnia treatment.

Methaqualone was first patented in the U.S. in 1962 and marketed by the Rorer pharmaceutical company under a snappy new brand name: Quaalude. It, and other drugs with its active ingredient, quickly became a widely used sedative, muscle relaxant, antihistamine, cough suppressant, and anesthetic. But it also gained another following as a recreational drug thanks to its euphoric side effects. Due to its tendency to build up a tolerance in the system, requiring users to take more and more to get the same effects, people began dying of Quaalude overdoses. The drug was banned in 1983, just over 20 years after it was patented.

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Can't get enough old-timey medical cures? Check out "The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine" by Thomas Morris for even more. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker October 31, 2019

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