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History of Addiction Treatment and Rehab Facilities: A Timeline

Substance use isn’t new. Humans have been using (and abusing) substances since ancient times. 

The frozen body of Ötzi, who’ve lived in 3300 BC and was recovered in the Alps in 1991, carried with him a variety of fungi with interesting psychedelic properties. 

South American tribes in 300 BCE used a hallucinogen called cohoba. Made from mimosa beans, it was used during ceremonial practices and shamanistic rituals to represent identity and sociality.

A mushroom known as fly agaric has been used in religious rituals in Central Asia for 4,000 years. The Chinese were using opium regularly since 1000 CE. 

Another psychedelic mushroom called psilocybe mexicana has been used by the natives of North and Central America for 2,000 years.

There are many more: mead, hemp, coca leaves, poppy juice, tobacco, alcohol, wine, among others. These substances were used for religious, medicinal, and recreational purposes.

Treatment of Substance Abuse in Ancient Times 

Addictive substances were discovered so long ago that addiction followed not long after that. But it was perhaps Aristotle who first discussed addiction. He didn’t see it as a disease, but rather an “incontinence of the will” and a deficiency of character. Because of this, the treatment of addiction in ancient times wasn’t as sympathetic as it should have been.

And that’s putting it mildly. In 1600, smoking was punishable by beheading in the Ottoman Empire. In Russia, it was, lip-cutting. 

Egypt’s way to control addiction was milder: tooth extraction. 

In the 18th century, addiction treatment included whipping, induced vomiting, blood-letting, and cold water baths. The feelings of shame, guilt, and other negative emotions were also induced in the hopes of curing substance abuse

However, all of these “methods” sounded more like a punishment than an actual treatment or rehabilitation

19th Century Version of Addiction Treatment 

When alcohol addiction became a pressing issue in the 19th century, a variety of “solutions” were devised to contain the problem. These solutions were heavily dependent on a person’s social status.

The poor were “treated” by putting them in jail, insane asylums, and almshouses. There were private hospitals, but they typically refused to take the patients in as it was seen as a waste of resources. 

For the rich, it was a different story. They could get away with home confinement or get private treatments that, in the modern world, are considered absurd: they had patients use morphine, inhale amyl nitrate or cocaine, or inject double chloride of gold.

In the late 1800s, institutions were put up in the U.S. to house “inebriates.” They were called homes of the fallen and treatment and detoxification included dangerous processes such as administration of belladonna or chloral hydrate.

An old advertisement promoting the Keely Cure to treat alcoholism

The Emergence of Alcoholics Anonymous 

The first drug treatment centre opened in the 1930s. Known as the US Narcotic Farm, its first patients were jazz musicians trying to get over opioid addiction.

The centre’s approach in treatment was considered unconventional at the time. Addiction was viewed as the result of idleness so patients were encouraged to work hard, play music, and spend more time creating art. Those who participated in addiction experiments were paid in morphine.

It was about the same time when Alcoholic Anonymous was formed. The four founding members were Bill Wilson, Rowland Hazard, Ebby Thatcher, and Dr. Bob Smith. 

Two of the members were alcoholics who were unable to sustain abstinence despite being Christians and members of the Christian organization called the Oxford Group. They published the famous blue book, Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. And although the principles of the 12 steps were heavily influenced by the Oxford Group, AA separated from the Christian organization in the 1930s.

AA’s success can be attributed to its welcoming environment where patients can find emotional, spiritual, and mental support while keeping the members’ anonymity. From this model, other groups for narcotics, cocaine, marijuana, gambling, among others were formed.

Addiction as a Disease 

It was the American Medical Association that defined alcoholism as a primary chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing prognosis.

This prompted the establishment of treatment units such as those founded by the Veterans Administration and Halfway House Association in the 1950s. Insurance companies started reimbursing treatments for alcoholism and alcoholism treatment in line with other illnesses.

Policymakers responded and the Controlled Act of Substances was passed in 1970. 

In 1987, the American Medical Association called all drug addiction a disease. In 1999, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act was passed.

Modern Rehab As We Know It 

It was only in recent years that modern treatment and rehabilitation as we know it emerged. But scientific research looking into the causes, optimal treatment, and recovery continue.

Currently, rehabilitation operates on the theory that substance abuse alters the brain’s chemistry which leads to behavioural changes and physical dependence. With this theory at the base, rehabs started offering a variety of approaches to treatment:

Treatments can be traditional, experimental, or holistic, devoted to one particular addiction or to many. They can also be customized to the patient’s individual needs. Typically, detoxification, pharmacological, and behavioural therapy sessions are included in the treatment.

A family celebrating the successful substance abuse recovery of a family member

The Future of Rehab 

Substance abuse is still happening in the modern world—just take a look at the number of people, including celebrities in AA. The good news is that studies on treatment continue to evolve as well.

If you or your loved one is seeking substance abuse treatment, reach out to us.

Freedom From Addiction is an addiction recovery and continuing care facility with treatment programs that are backed by science. We provide clients with comprehensive support to help them heal and begin a new life.


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