Soldier’s Disease — widespread addiction following massive administration of opiates during the Civil War — is the earliest and most often repeated example of a drug problem before the narcotics laws. The story exemplifies several basic themes used in support of continued drug prohibition — addiction is easy to acquire, hard to kick, and is a publicly noticed, i.e. asocial, problem. Soldier’s Disease, though, is a myth. Not one case of addiction was reported in medical records or the literature of the time; under ten references were made in the Nineteenth Century to addiction the cause of which was the Civil War; and no perjorative nickname for addicted veterans, like Soldier’s Disease, appeared in the literature until 1915, and it did not become part of the Conventional Wisdom of drug experts until almost a century after Appomattox.
How contemporary drug policy is based on something that never existed.