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Chronicling our chemical buzz: a history of human inebriation.


Drugs and alcohol have been a vice for people since Neolithic times. The advent of agriculture bred the discovery of the effects of wine, beer and psychoactive drugs. Most of the early discoveries were by accident but chemistry did catch up and we now know why and how our early ancestors came about their chemical buzz.

6000 BC

A warm Mediterranean climate and natural yeast in the atmosphere converts sugar in grape juice into ethyl alcohol. Society gets its first taste of wine.

4000 BC

The opium poppy is first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. Sumerians refer to it as the hulgil, meaning plant of joy. Opium is believed to be the world's first antidepressant.

2000 BC

Ancient Greeks popularize alcohol with mead, created naturally from the fermentation of honey and water.

1500 BC

Beer is produced from malt. In more northern latitudes, where grapes and sweet fruits do not readily grow, it is accidentally discovered that as a harvested grain starts to germinate, its sugar content increases. If germination is stopped by drying, the grain will contain sugar and enzymes ready for fermentation.

450 BC

Greek historian Herodotus describes the burning of cannabis: "... as it burns, it smokes like incense and the smell of it makes them drunk."

700 BC

Arab alchemists distill alcohol. The distillation purifies wine giving us brandy (from the Dutch word brandewijn meaning "burnt wine").

1300 BC

Marco Polo writes "very good wine of sugar" about a beverage that was offered to him in what is now modern-day Iran. This is the first written account of rum.


Sugarcane plantation slaves distill rum in the Caribbean. They discover that molasses, as a by-product of refining sugar, ferments into alcohol. They distill it to remove impurities and begin the long and storied history of rum in the Caribbean.


Dutch scientist Franciscus Sylvius invents gin by distilling grains and flavouring with juniper oil. He intends it to be a medicine for kidney disorders.


German pharmacist Friedrich W. Serturner isolates and describes an alkaloid that is the main and powerful active ingredient in opium. He names it morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Morphine and other opiates, including heroin which is synthesized from morphine, are chemically similar to the naturally produced compounds endorphins and enkephalins. The opiate molecules engage many nerve-receptor sites in the brain to mimic intense euphoria from high levels of endorphins.


German chemist Friedrich Ferdinand Runge first isolates trimethylxanthine, better known as caffeine, from coffee beans.


Amphetamine is first synthesized in Germany by chemist Lazar Edeleanu as the compound phenylisopropylamine derived from the ephedrine plant. Original synthesis is with no known pharmacological use, but we now know that amphetamine increases concentrations of dopamine, the "reward neurotransmitter," and serotonin. The effect is hyperactivity and euphoria giving the drug t he street name "speed."


Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is patented by the German chemical company Merck with the intention of marketing it as a diet pill. MDMA, better known as ecstasy, stimulates the release of serotonin to generate elation and emotion.


Japanese chemist Akira Ogata crystallizes methamphetamine creating crystal meth from the reduction of ephedrine using red phosphorus and iodine. The notorious drug climbs the ranks of drug use because of its solubility in water.


American organic chemist Roger Adams produces moderately pure cannabidiol and cannabinol from Minnesotan wild hemp using a petroleum ether extraction process. He is credited with the first isolation of true cannabinoids, the active components of cannabis.


Raphael Mechoulam, Yechiel Gaoni and Habib Edery from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel isolate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive substance found in the cannabis plant. THC is an aromatic terpenoid with low water solubility but good organic solvent solubility. In its pure form, it is a glassy solid when cold and becomes viscous and sticky at higher temperatures.


Miles Herkenham and his team at the National Institute of Mental Health in the US map locations of a cannabinoid receptor system in humans. These receptors currently known as CB1 and CB2 are protein membrane receptors which are activated by the lipid compounds cannabinoids. The CB1 receptor is expressed mainly in the brain, central nervous system, and the CB2 receptor in the immune system.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE: HISTORY
Comment:Chronicling our chemical buzz: a history of human inebriation.(FEATURE: HISTORY)
Author:Campbell, Anne
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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