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The Disturbing History of Drug Addiction in the Military

From morphine in the Civil War, to prescription drugs today, the military has a long history of substance abuse. Credit: Military OneSource.

Would you ever look at a man or woman in uniform and think, “Drug addict”?

I’m guessing the answer is no, because drug addiction is rarely associated with military service.

In fact, military service is usually thought of as a way to put someone on the straight and narrow. Maybe a troubled kid enrolls in military school and learns the value of discipline, or a convict chooses the military over prison, and turns their life around. That’s the beauty in selfless service, but it barely scratches the surface of what it means to don that uniform. 

Our service members are at higher risk for a lot of things, including marital problems, unemployment (after service), PTSD, anxiety, depression, injury, disability, and death. They are also at high risk for alcohol and drug addiction, and for many, it’s life-ruining. 

Let’s take a look at the history of drug addiction in the military — and, believe me, it’s a long one. 


Drug Addiction in the Civil War 

  • Time period: 1861-1865
  • Drug of choice: Morphine

Morphine is an opiate, and was first discovered in the early 1800s by pharmacist Friedrich Serturner. He named the drug “morphium” after the Greek god Morpheus — the god of dreams — as it tended to put users to sleep. 

It was commercialized in 1827, and picked up steam in the 1850s with the invention of the syringe. Morphine was widely considered a wonder drug, as it seemed to “magically” take all pain away; because there had been little to no drug exposure at the time, people didn’t know how dangerously addictive it was. 

Soldiers in the Civil War started using morphine for pain management. However, as it is addictive by nature, it soon became the treatment for many other things, including diarrhea and dysentery. Then, simply boredom. 

Veterans left the battlefield with what was known as “Soldier’s Disease”, or morphine addiction; some 400,000 of them struggled to reacclimate to their civilian lives. This would start a trend that continued in many veterans from many different wars. 


World War I, AKA “The Tobacco War” 

While nicotine is considered a drug — and a highly addictive one at that — it’s not considered as bad as, say, heroin. Or even marijuana, for that matter. But World War I is what popularized smoking in America, and killed many more than the 40 million who died fighting. 

  • Time period: 1914-1918 
  • Drugs of choice: Nicotine & Cocaine

Chesterfield was one of the first cigarette manufacturers in America; smoked by both Humphrey Bogart and Sean Connery’s James Bond.

Before WWI, less than 0.5% of Americans smoked. Let that sink in for a second. Even today, well after the peak years of cigarette use, approx. 15% of Americans still smoke

During the Great War, soldiers were given cigarettes by the government as a stress reducer, and just for something to do. By 1918, around 14 million cigarettes were being sold every day. The first warning label on a pack of cigarettes didn’t appear until ‘66. That’s over forty years that people smoked with no knowledge of the potentially-fatal impact it has on the body. 

More than tobacco, soldiers on the frontlines began using cocaine in order to stay alert (and ultimately, to stay alive). Other than combating fatigue, the drug was also said to help anxiety. 

It was especially popular among British troops, as their government created a drug called “Forced March”, which was just a mixture of cocaine and cola nut extract. Because it was being distributed by the government, their wives and family would often send it in care packages, along with heroin. 


World War II and the Development of Crystal Meth 

Drug addiction in the military really amped up in WWII; there was a constant race to one-up the enemy. The Allied and Axis Powers were hard at work making new weaponry, transportation, and chemical agents for nuclear warfare. It was only a matter of time until that included the development of performance-enhancing drugs for the soldiers. 

  • Time period: 1939-1945
  • Drugs of choice: Methamphetamine & Benzedrine 

Meth was first isolated in 1887, and continued to be synthesized in different forms through the early 1900s. However, it was never really popular until WWII. The Nazis began distributing it in 1937 as a tablet by the name of Pervitin. 

Pervitin was really just a pill-form of crystal meth, and was used for several different things. First, it helped them stay alert, much like cocaine did for soldiers of WWI. Also — as meth is a very potent stimulant — it was used to enhance physical performance and confidence in battle. 

Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth created in Nazi Germany. Credit: History Collection.

Some scary statistics about meth use in WWII: 

  • Soldiers on meth could march for 50 hours without sleep 
  • German soldiers alone consumed over 200 million Pervitin pills 
  • They also ate meth chocolates (containing 13mg of meth, rather than the 3mg in Pervitin) 

There were bad side effects, too. Other than the regular dizziness, sweating, and hallucinations, some soldiers went crazy on the drug; this included cases of men shooting themselves while under the influence of meth. Others died of heart failure. 

Japan also promoted meth use, and ended up with an epidemic on their hands. In the 1950s, around half a million Japanese citizens were addicted to meth. 

The U.S. and Britain weren’t exempt from this drug crisis. The U.S. in particular gave its soldiers “between 250–500 million” Benzedrine tablets, more commonly known as “bennies.” Benzedrine is an amphetamine like meth and has similar effects. 


Mind Control Drugs in the Cold War 

The outburst of acid use in the ‘60s could be attributed to the CIA. During the Cold War, a top-secret project named “MK-Ultra” involved the use of LSD as mind control. 

  • Time period: 1950s – 1960s
  • Drug of choice: Lysergic acid diethylamide

LSD was first made in Sweden in the 1930s. It is a hallucinogenic drug, meaning it causes hallucinations, or sights/sounds that aren’t really there. When someone’s on an acid trip, they could be seeing and experiencing any number of things. 

In Project MK-Ultra, the CIA was experimenting with LSD as a means to obtain information from enemy spies/combatants. They tested it on volunteers, and on unwilling people, along with hypnosis, shock therapy, and enhanced interrogation. 

Fun fact: The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tried LSD as a part of this program when he was attending Stanford. He went on to promote LSD. 

Due to the unpredictable nature of the drug, the CIA discontinued MK-Ultra. It would either cause people to experience some sort of euphoria, or to become terribly anxious, upset, and even a danger to themselves or other people. 


The Vietnam War 

The men in Vietnam were the poster kids for drug addiction in the military. Hell, you could probably talk to any Vietnam veteran who spent time in Vietnam and they’ll have a story about drug use. Not only were drugs popular in the States at the time, but the danger and negative discourse surrounding this conflict led to soldiers turning to drugs as a way to cope. 

  • Time period: 1955-1975
  • Drugs of choice: Dextroamphetamine, Marijuana, Heroin, Opium

Dextroamphetamine, or Speed, was issued to soldiers during the Vietnam period as “Pep Pills” — they were about twice as strong as the Benzedrine tablets from WWII. As always, it was intended to be performance-enhancing. 

Unfortunately, Speed also increases aggression, and it caused soldiers to experience violent thoughts and even harm innocent people. In addition to this, over half of service members smoked marijuana, while a third of them were on heroin or opium. 

What’s worse, the DoD would administer antipsychotic medications in order to treat the high amount of psychotic breakdowns that resulted from war trauma. But without the knowledge or therapy that needs to come with these medications, they weren’t an effective solution.

Vietnam soldiers would smoke marijuana and hashish out of the barrels of their guns. Credit: 420EvaluationsOnline.

Present Day

Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are also prone to addiction. A common problem among today’s combat veterans is alcoholism. This study says that the military leads all other professions in the number of days spent drinking per year. Spoiler alert: Service members drink on an average of 133 days a year. 

  • Time period: 2004-Now
  • Drugs of choice: Alcohol & Prescription Drugs

Alcohol is generally used as a coping method for soldiers and veterans who suffer from PTSD. But as a depressant, it almost never makes them feel better; it dramatically increases their risk of committing suicide, or acts of violence against other people. 

For those who have been injured or disabled in the line of duty, addiction to painkillers is a common problem. Some take them to manage their chronic pain; some who have healed can’t kick the habit. 

Common drugs include: 

  • Percocet, OxyContin, and Vicotin for pain (highly addictive opioids) 
  • Ambien and Restoril for sleep and anxiety
  • Dexedrine for energy 


Drug Addiction in the Military

There is obviously a very long history of drug addiction in the military. Whether they were the ones supplying the drugs, or the trauma of war caused soldiers to seek a drug-related solution. 

The opioid crisis is something our military veterans are especially susceptible to, and in 2017, over 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. We need to recognize this as a veteran’s issue — the same as homelessness, mental illness, and disability — and work to instill programs that help veterans overcome addiction. 

For more information on veterans’ drug addiction, click here. To call the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Hotline, dial 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

Should service members be allowed to use marijuana? What about veterans? We break down the argument against cannabis in the military here


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