We humans and opiates go way back.
It seems that our slope-browed proto-ancestors may have known a thing or two about partying. Evidence of poppy plant use by Neanderthals has been found at archaeological sites dating back 30,000 years. Then much later, with domestication, breeding, and synthesis, opiates moved out of the caves and were used and traded by cultures all over the world.
So, consider this: If drug use has been a part of the human experience for so long, could it a part of our genetics as well? Does addiction have an evolutionary basis?
The way allelochemicals – psychotropic chemicals, like those found in plants, that exert an effect on another species – fit into the human central nervous system in a way that suggest co-evolution. Scientists have found a series of changes that occurred between the human brain and psychotropic plants that co-evolved to allow for maximum effect. For humans, our brains have even evolved receptor systems for specific plant substances like opiates.1 You might say heroin addiction is in our DNA. The fact that human bodies have evolved defenses against opiates – such as in our ability to metabolize the drug and our vomit reflex to protect us against overtoxicity – may also add proof.
But, while that was fine for the cave-dweller, it won’t help us modern humans much: Poppy juice was one thing, but the body is simply not designed to handle heroin, synthetic opioids, or superpotent painkillers like fentanyl.
This much is clear: Although human brains may have evolved to experience the maximum effect of opiates, we have little defense against its addictive affects. And as opiates like heroin get cheaper, more powerful, and more plentiful, the threat against humanity only grows.
In fact, “the threat posed by heroin in the United States is serious and has increased since 2007.”2 From 2010 to 2014 the number of heroin-related overdoses has tripled. For San Diegans, overdoses from heroin have shot up nearly 18 percent in only 4 years. By 2014 the percentage of men and women booked into our local county jails testing positive for heroin and other opiates was at its highest point ever since tracking began in 2000.
While perceptions of how to deal with the problem of opiates are changing, such as getting substance abusers into treatment rather than jail, treatment alone won’t solve the problem. We need to take a more strategic approach that includes counseling, rehabilitation, education, and opiate replacement medication. Studies have shown that its rehab and not incarceration that makes it more likely that a heroin user won’t end up back in jail. They are also less likely to continue to use drugs.3
This we know: We can’t allow the problem to continue as it has been. It may have started with our Neanderthal cousins, but there’s no reason why it needs to be our human legacy forever.