Saturday, August 17, 2013




It eased infant colic.  It soothed a baby’s teething pains.  It even calmed so that a frazzled mother could get some sleep.  They called it “Mother’s Little Helper”.

It is paregoric, a six percent tincture of opium.  For over a century, until the 1950s[1], it was a standby in the medicine cabinets of untold numbers of American families and the go-to remedy when their children got sick.  For the first half of the twentieth century, paregoric was to the diaper set what laudanum had been to adults in the nineteenth. (See my earlier post, “Did Everyone Use Opium?”)

Once in the late 1940s, my family went on our annual camping trip in the mountains of New Mexico.  My little sister, who would have been five or six years old at the time, got diarrhea, and we drove to Santa Fe to get some medicine for her.  Mom and Dad discovered that, contrary to the practice back home in Texas, the drug store would not sell them paregoric without a prescription.  We ended up taking her to a hospital emergency room.  If you ask your grandparents – or probably great-grandparents by now – they will probably have paregoric stories of their own.

The story of paregoric is fascinating by itself, and I hope someone tells it soon.  But it is also valuable for its intersection with three other narratives.

The first is with drug Prohibition itself.  Opiates were strictly regulated and limited beginning with the Harrison Act in 1914, and heroin was completely banned by two statutes in the 1920s.  Yet paregoric remained freely available for another quarter century after that.  And its regulation then came, not through the drug-control laws, but indirectly through the control of licit drugs by the institution of prescription requirements.

 The second is the contrast between paregoric use and the hysteria starting with the hype about “crack babies”.  Soon after the crack cocaine scare broke out in the 1980s, alarmists raised the alarm about babies severely damaged by the pre-natal cocaine use by their mothers.  Although the crack baby myth was quickly rebutted, many still insist on pre-natal drug testing of expectant women and fret about the harms drug-using women are doing to their awaited children.

The third parallel may be the most important.  Controversy has arisen about medical use of marijuana by children in states that have approved medical use by adults[2].  In several states courts have ordered the removal of children from the custody of parents who use, or even possess, marijuana even if it is for that parent’s medical use.  Almost everyone will agree that opiate use presents greater dangers (while still small on an absolute scale) to users of any age than does marijuana use.  If more than a century of relatively heavy paregoric use by children created no more problems than the history reveals, then the conclusion should be that limited marijuana use would be even safer.  To this can be added the safe record of use of amphetamines (Dexedrine: Adderall, methamphetamine: Desoxyn) for children with attention spectrum disorders.  

Sometimes the rearview mirror shows us that the bumps in the road ahead are smaller than those in the road already traveled, and the dawn’s sunlight will dispel the monsters lurking under the bed.  A good dose of paregoric may cure some of the Drug War illness.


[1] The federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act (the statutory foundation of the FDA) was amended then to require a signed doctor’s prescription for the dispensing of some drugs, creating the distinction between prescription and over-the-counter medicines.  The change had been requested by states troubled by abuse of Benzedrine (amphetamine) inhalers.  Although some states already had prescription laws for some drugs (primarily opiates), these amendments created national uniformity.
[2] Today (8/16/13) Governor Christie of New Jersey vetoed a bill that would have extended the right to use (with parental consent) to minors.

1 comment:

    Chris Christie: Medical marijuana OK for children
    New Jersey has joined 19 other states in allowing adults to use marijuana use for medical reasons. Gov. Chris Christie announced he will also permit children under 18 to use edible marijuana for certain diseases. Terrell Brown reports.


    Governor Christie of New Jersey vetoed a bill that would have extended the right to use (with parental consent) to minors.