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10 Old-Timey Medicines That Got People High

Want some morphine in your cough syrup?

Before the FDA, meds boasting an eye-popping array of psychoactive substances were marketed to a population largely ignorant of the addictive potential. Take a look at some of the more spectacular examples.

1. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

Ah yes,  Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was indeed a godsend to mothers dealing with fussy, teething infants. And there can be little doubt that since this infamous patent medicine—which was first marketed in 1849—contained a whopping 65 mg of morphine per fluid ounce, even the most colicky of babies were “soothed” by a healthy dose. The problem was, of course, that this potent concoction often did too good a job when it came to quieting fussy babies. As theAmerican Medical Times put it in 1860, many mothers were sadly “relieved of all further care of their infants” thanks to this deceptively potent elixir. The American Medical Associated listed the syrup as a “baby killer” in a 1911 publication, effectively dealing a deathblow to the medicine as a commercial proposition in the USA. Yet its sale continued in the UK up until 1930.

2. Dr. J. Collis Browne’s “Chlorodyne”

Dr. John Collis Browne’s  Chlorodyne was marketed as a cure for coughs, colds, asthma, migraines and bronchitis, as well as for the treatment of cholera symptoms. One of the more famous patent medicines, it was a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), cannabis tincture and chloroform and was a huge hit, inspiring a series of imitators to churn out their own versions of Chlorodyne. Many of the knock-offs replaced laudanum with morphine hydrochloride and soon Chlorodyne dependence was a big problem. Over the years, the tincture of cannabis was removed from the formulation and the morphine content gradually lowered. While these days Chlorodyne is confined to the history books, in the UK you can still buy Dr J. Collis Browne’s Mixture, a cure for coughs and upset stomachs, which contains morphine and peppermint oil.

3. Buckfast Tonic Wine

The Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbeyfirst produced their “tonic wine” in the 1880’s and marketed it as a cure-all with the slogan, “Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood." When the Abbey lost its license to sell wine in 1927, the Abbott allowed merchants to distribute the wine. During this period, the ingredients were altered to make it more palatable to consumers and the product exploded in popularity. Flash-forward to modern days and Buckfast is no longer sold as a medicine (the label states “the label tonic wine does not imply health giving or medicinal properties”) and Buckfast, “buckie” or “Commotion Lotion”—as it is colloquially called—has gained a rep as a scourge of the working classes of Scotland. The wine is cheap, sweet and highly potent; one 750 ml bottle also contains the same amount of caffeine as you would fine in eight cans of cola. Buckfast became so associated with public drunkenness and anti-social behavior among those under 18 in Scotland that more than one Scottish MP has called for it to be banned.

4. Green's August Flower

The story of Green’s August Flower and  Dr. Borschee’s German Syrup is really the story of one George Gill Green, who made his millions selling patent medicines that were little more than  laudanum. He bought the patent for both medicines from his father, Lewis M. Green, who was a butcher by trade. For someone who made his money in the medicines game, George Green didn’t have much of a medical background: he attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school for two years before dropping out and enlisting in the 142nd Regiment during the Civil War. After the war, he discovered his genius for marketing by creating a campaign that involved mass mailings of free samples of his medicines and the distribution of thousands of his almanacs—which may well make him the pioneer of the whole “ the first hit is free” approach to selling narcotics. He was successful enough that he built the Woodbury Opera House in 1880 and the historic Hotel Green in 1903. Yet the bottom fell out of the patent medicine business after 1906, and by 1916, both Green’s August Flower and German Syrup had been discontinued.

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