LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Illicit drugs may be a scourge of modern life but the use of mind-altering substances is threaded through human history and cultures, from betel nut in Asia to coca leaf in the Andes to espresso coffee in Europe.
With illegal drug use on the rise and trade in banned products worth some $320 billion a year, according to UN estimates, a new exhibition at London's Wellcome Collection seeks to put today's "high society" into perspective.
Bringing together such objects as an 11th-century manuscript on poppy remedies and a Victorian-era hallucinogenic snuff set from the Amazon, the Collection's "High Society" exhibition comes at a time when ideas about drugs are in a state of flux, according to co-curator Mike Jay.
"The line between use and abuse is very difficult to police because it keeps changing," he said in an interview. "It's changing at the moment, for example with the debate over whether we should think of cannabis as a medicine."
California, whose citizens are voting on Tuesday on the legalization of marijuana or cannabis, has allowed medical use of the drug since 1996. In Europe, multiple sclerosis patients can now be prescribed an under-the-tongue cannabis spray.
At the same time, scientists are looking again at the potential therapeutic benefits of banned drugs like LSD or "magic mushrooms," combined with psychotherapy, as a treatment for depression, compulsive disorders and chronic pain.
Swiss researchers argued in a scientific paper earlier this year that imaging showed psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin -- the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms -- acted on the brain in ways that could help various disorders.
Other groups are looking at methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), or ecstasy, as a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
It all underlines the fact that there are few constants in societal attitudes toward drugs.
The exhibition, which opens on November 11 and runs until February 27 at the Wellcome Trust medical charity's visitor center, notes that today's legal drugs of choice -- alcohol, coffee and tobacco -- have all been illegal at certain times and in certain jurisdictions in the past.
Conversely, some of today's illegal street drugs have a respectable past.
Coca, the source of cocaine, was once an ingredient in tonic wines, including the original Coca-Cola, and German drugmaker Bayer developed diacetylmorphine as a cough suppressant under the trade name Heroin in 1898 -- one year before it launched Aspirin.
Editing by Paul Casciato