Pharmakon- remedy or poison?

Drugs have been used in our history as medicines, for religious use and a staple commodities.

But where do drugs come from?

pill personality

Warfarin was discovered when cows in the USA’s Great Depression were dying of internal bleeding after eating mouldy hay. The organism in the gone off hay was the mould coumarin, the basis of the drug warfarin we use today in the prevention of stroke.

Ethiopian priests started roasting and boiling coffee beans to stay awake through nights of prayer after a shepherd noticed how his goats were frolicking after feeding on coffee shrubs.

The oldest recorded drug, however, is opium (where morphine is derived from) or “nepenthes pharmakon” as the Ancient Greek called it. It was used by Helen of Troy, received from the Egyptians, who administered it to the Greek warriors in order “to lull all pain and anger and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow”.


Misuse of substances

Addiction and substance misuse became a global public health problem with the colonial era, industrial revolution and international trade. In the mid 18th century “the opium wars” rendered a large number of the Chinese addicted to opium. This was the aim of the British forces, who fought towards legislation of the drug trade in China and imported it into their ports in a bid to regain their own wealth.

This month we see the NHS’s #Stoptober2017 for those addicted to nicotine, we had dry January for those reliant upon alcohol and we see Louis Theroux’s brilliant new series on BBC 2 “Dark states” with the first episode concentrating on heroin addiction, focused particularly on those who were at first addicted to prescription opiates before moving onto more illicit substances. Well worth a watch.

In my naïve experience, I found that in times of great need and with a lack of basic commodities, people turn to pills- ANY pills- for a buzz. In the remote areas of Scotland for example, participants of Eden were known to frequently break into the drugs supplies for a fix. A fix could consist of anything from a cocktail of loperamide and ibuprofen (I know…what?) to a capful of lactulose syrup for a sugar kick. The codeine supply disappeared in the first week and the nitrous oxide was broken into during our first night on our home brewed moonshine.


Said moonshine- brewed with rotting potato skins or chicken feed- was also a corrupt comfort. The risk assessment for Eden compiled in November, 2015, warned of the dangers of not only fire, trench foot, hypothermia, but also “persons becoming aggressive and acting violent due to the stresses of living wild.” This was before they had even anticipated we would be brewing 20% alcohol with provided 48 hour brewing “turbo yeast” and downing it on occasions of severe boredom. Things often turned nasty on this substance, and I wonder if in the winter after I left whether certain members of the community experienced withdrawal symptoms or fitted the criteria for alcoholism.

Whether used as medicines, commodities or spiritual awakenings, there lies a beneficial side as well as a darker side to drugs. Pharmakon is the ancient Greek word for remedy, but also for poison and it is our choice whether to use these substances as therapy or indeed, as venom.

Inspired by Dr Aaron Parkhurst’s lecture on “Pharmakon”

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