Old habits?

A history of drink, drugs and addiction

7000 BCE

Oldest known alcoholic drink, identified from traces left on pottery excavated from a site in China. Some archaeologists believe cultivating fermentable crops was a key factor in the origins of agriculture, and so is as old as human settlement.

4000 BCE

Opium poppies domesticated in the western Mediterranean. Opium, which can be harvested from the wild, is probably the oldest narcotic. Cannabis in use as a narcotic in Eurasia.

1200 CE

The Incas in South America adopt the traditional Andean habit of chewing coca leaves (which contain cocaine), and declare coca a sacred plant.


Shakespeare uses the word “addiction” in ‘Henry V’. At that time, it meant to be bound to someone as a slave, or by excessive devotion, hence “His addiction was to causes vain…”


First shipment of Virginia tobacco auctioned in London. It breaks a Spanish monopoly on the weed, and creates a demand for labour that is to be met by the slave trade.


Faced with a gin craze, especially among the poor in London, Parliament passes the first of a series of laws trying to control gin-drinking.


The British force China to allow continued importation of opium, mainly from their territories in India. This helps finance the new trend among the English at home, tea-drinking.


First pure cocaine extracted from coca leaves. Coca extracts in wide use in tonics and patent medicines in Europe and the USA.


San Francisco city ordinance bans use of opium, the earliest US prohibition.


Sherlock Holmes is described in ‘The Sign of Four’ injecting cocaine. Holmes, also a user of morphine, describes cocaine to an anxious Dr Watson as “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind”.


American Medical Association declares alcoholism a disease.


Alan Leshner, Director of US National Institute on Drug Abuse, publishes review paper concluding that “addiction is a brain disease”.


Premiere of US TV series ‘Celebrity Rehab’ with Dr Drew. In this reality show, celebrities undergo 21 days’ treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, and are filmed 24/7.


Gambling disorder becomes the first behavioural addiction in the American Psychiatric Association's manual DSM-V. The APA also declares internet gaming disorder an area that warrants further research.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Psychology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development