When Did Recreational Drugs Emerge

Figure 1. Ceramics, such as this from Cyprus, have been found to contain opium.

We think of recreational drugs as being a phenomenon that has emerged relatively recently. However, the use of drugs, other than medicinal purposes, has existed from antiquity. The purpose was sometimes not only for enjoyment but also integrated with religious practice. The recreational use of drugs has been a fairly consistent phenomenon throughout recorded history and most likely much longer.

Which drugs did humans use in the Ancient Middle East?

The use of drugs such as opium likely originated from prehistoric periods, although direct evidence is limited. Remains from Central Asia and across Eurasia's parts suggest plant residues that resemble cannabis have been found on braziers. In fact, the origin of opium is that it comes from Central Asia, and it liked reached the Near East and Europe in the Neolithic due to migrations of populations such as the Yamnaya. Some early evidence for recreational drug use comes from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq) and Egypt. At Ebla, in modern western Syria, a kitchen was found in a palace from the mid 3rd millennium BCE. When the ceramics found in the kitchen were analyzed, they were found to contain traces of opium.

The Sumerians may have also cultivated opium and traded it similarly to other commodities. In Cyprus, vessels from the Bronze age, about 3400 years ago, were also found to contain opium (Figure 1). Marijuana was also likely another drug cultivated perhaps as early as the Neolithic period over 5000 years ago. It is possible there were many uses for both opium and marijuana besides only as drugs, whether medicinal or for recreational use. For instance, both marijuana and opium plants can be made into rope.

Nevertheless, some have suggested the evidence for seemingly large-scale production, such as at Ebla, may indicate more recreational usage. It isn't easy to differentiate when using drugs was for recreational purposes rather than religious purposes. Very possibly, recreation and religion could have blended in early belief systems. Artistic scenes from the Near East may also show large-scale drug use. Banquetting scenes were often depicted on cylinder seal art, and these scenes often described the consumption of wine or alcohol which could be mixed with various drugs such as opium.

In China and India, evidence from the Bronze Age also suggests early use of opium; marijuana, particularly in India where the drug naturally occurs, was also likely used in the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago. In these cases, both drugs could have been smoked and used in drinks.[1]

What was the Bluewater Lotus?

Painting from the time of Ramses III showing the use of the blue lotus.

In Egypt, one popular drug was the blue water lotus. Bluewater lotus has hallucinogenic qualities and was often with wine (Figure 2). Paintings of drunken festivals with descriptions and depictions of likely orgies suggest that it was ingested for recreational use and not just for religious purposes. However, recreational use may have also been part of worship rituals in Egypt, as descriptions of the use of the blue lotus have been found at Karnak, the site of Egypt's most holy temple.

The famous burial of Tutankhamun contained the blue lotus, which could suggest its ingestion during the pharaoh's life and was intended to comfort him in the afterlife. In later periods, both Greek and Roman cultures ingested opium, including using it in wine. The Greek stories and mythology often mentioned drugging of the gods, suggest opium and other drugs such as mushrooms may have been common.[2]

Where mushrooms used as drugs in the Ancient world?

Recreational drugs also included other forms, including types of mushrooms. In the Sahara and sub-Sahara Africa, mushrooms containing psilocybin were used as a hallucinogenic by nomadic groups. Rock art from 9000-7000 years ago, before the Sahara became a vast desert and was still relatively fertile, may suggest that mushrooms were ingested in North Africa as part of rituals and visions seen and painted. Representations of mushrooms are also shown, which would suggest their use as part of the visions or drawings shown in rock art.[3]

Which drugs were used recreationally Drugs in the Americas?

While opium was likely the most common drug in the Old World, recreational drugs in the New World included cocoa leaves that were chewed in South America as early as about 8000 years ago. After 3000 BC, cocoa was commonly chewed and consumed by cultures east of the Andes. Later, it was introduced to the Incas and was added as part of tea or commonly chewed. The Incas considered it a divine plant and likely saw the psychedelic effects as a divine influence or ways to communicate with the gods. Similarly, though, the Incas likely used it for recreational purposes. The Incas created a monopoly of production, and cocoa was more limited in its use, where perhaps mostly the upper classes and nobles used it. After the collapse of the Incas, the use of cocoa likely spread across South America, and there was less control of the market.[4]

While cocoa was the likely dominant drug in South America, in North America, peyote was one of the more likely dominant drugs. The earliest evidence of its use dates to about 3700 BC in the Rio Grande region of Texas. Evidence suggests Native Americans used it as potentially a recreational drug and a way to communicate with spirits. The use of peyote spread in use across much of the Western United States and Mexico. Interestingly, research on the Huichol, who may have been using the drug for over 1500 years, show no evidence of adverse effects on their chromosome that would suggest long-term genetic damage from continuous drug use.[5]

Another similar drug to peyote is salvia, which has been recently rediscovered in North America. It is a native mint-like plant that grows in northern Mexico. Similar to peyote, it was popular in ingesting for shaman rituals among native groups. It was used to communicate with the spirits but also likely taken for pleasure. The hallucinogenic is generally not toxic, even at high levels, while it is also very potent and among the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogenic plants. It is consumed by chewing or smoking usually. Other Native American stimulants have included tobacco, one of the first drugs to be traded from the New World to the Old World. It was one of the first gifts that Columbus received when arriving in the New World. It was often smoked to seal important events among native groups, such as a peace treaty between warring tribes.[6]

How did recreational drug use change starting in the 16th Century?

Tobacco was the major drug of choice that became traded between the New and Old World. It was instantly popular already by the 16th century in Europe, when clay pipes began to be created to be smoked all across Europe. Opium and marijuana were also known but not very common until renewed contact with China and India in the 17th to 19th centuries. Opium and marijuana only became illegal drugs across parts of the Old World in the 19th century. During his invasion of Egypt, Napolean became concerned his troops were drinking cannabis mixed in drinks and smoking it. Morphine, derived from the same opium poppies, was also developed in the 19th century as a medical product in Germany.

Heroin was similarly derived in Europe in the 19th century by an English chemist and then developed into a medicinal drug by the drug company Bayer Pharmaceutical Company in the 1890s. In the 1860s, cocaine was derived from cocoa by a German chemist, where it similarly began to be used in medicine and recreationally. Additionally, it was used in the soft drink Coca-Cola, which gave it its name.[7]

Why did the Opium trade from China increase dramatically in the 19th Century?

The opium trade continued to increase throughout much of the 19th century, particularly from India. Opium was being exported to China from India, where it was also commercially grown by the British East India Company. This Chinese had banned opium by this point, but the British East India Company began illegally smuggling it into China through Canton's port. This led the Chinese government to confiscate the opium from Canton, but this led to Britain's conflict, which launched the so-called First Opium War that led to the take over of Hong Kong and other Chinese ports.

Throughout the 19th century, opium was widely traded despite its ban in a few countries. In the West, it was legal and often used to derive various drugs such as morphine and heroin. It was only in 1912 that opium became banned under the International Opium Convention. Similarly, the 1920s was an era where other drugs increasingly became banned, such as marijuana, as by then crime and heavy drug use became larger problems in Western countries.[8]


Recreational drugs have long been a part of human history. For many ancient societies, recreational use of drugs and religious worship often went together, where mind-altering drugs were seen as a way to communicate with the world of the gods and spirits. Even after converting many societies to Christianity or other monotheistic religions, recreational drugs were still widely used, although not always accepted. However, trade continued to be robust. In the late 19th century, many naturally occurring drugs began to be derived into new derivatives, such as cocaine, morphine, and heroin. In the early 20th century, many countries banned most recreational drugs, except for the relatively weaker drugs such as tobacco.


  1. For more on the earliest history of drugs in the Old World, see: Escohotado, Antonio. 1999. A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age. Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press.
  2. For more on the blue lotus, see: Vasudevan Nair, R. 2004. Controversial Drug Plants. Biodiversity Library. Hyderabad: University Press (India) : Distributed by Orient Longman, pg. 69.
  3. For more on rock art and other forms of recreational drug use in Africa, see: http://www.artepreistorica.com/2009/12/the-oldest-representations-of-hallucinogenic-mushrooms-in-the-world-sahara-desert-9000-%E2%80%93-7000-b-p/
  4. For more on cocoa and its use in history, see: Afoakwa, Emmanuel Ohene. 2014. Cocoa Production and Processing Technology. Boca Raton London New York: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, pg. 9.
  5. For more on peyote, see: Stewart, Omer Call. 1993. Peyote Religion: A History. Norman [Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press.
  6. For more on salvia, see: Carod-Artal, F.J. 2015. “Hallucinogenic Drugs in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Cultures.” Neurología (English Edition) 30 (1): 42–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nrleng.2011.07.010.
  7. For more on how naturally occurring drugs were developed into derivative drugs, see: Lyman, Michael D. 2017. Drugs in Society: Causes, Concepts, and Control. Eighth edition. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  8. For more on a recent history of opium and its banning, see Inglis, Lucy. 2018. Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium. London: Macmillan.