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US History of Illicit Drugs

It’s easy to think of illicit drugs as a curse of modern life. In these hectic times, when friendships are often virtual instead of emotional, when people struggle to find and keep a good job, and when consumers are bombarded with messages at seemingly every turn, it’s easy to see why people might turn to drugs in order to find relief from pain, stress and dysfunction. While it’s true that drugs are a part of contemporary life, it’s also true that drugs have been in play for decades. In fact, the United States has a long history of declaring specific drugs illegal, and the results of those declarations have been somewhat mixed.

Early Days of Drug Abuse

It’s unclear exactly when the first drugs were discovered. Some attribute the discovery to native cultures, which often included specific hallucinogenic plants in their healing rituals. Others attribute the discovery to ancient cultures that experimented with fermentation and different plants in order to decrease pain and increase pleasure. Debates about which drug came first tend to rage on and on in academic journals. It is clear, however, that many illicit drugs were first considered amazingly helpful by medical professionals and the general public in the early days of their introduction. Only later were they discovered to be harmful, and then declared illegal.

One of the earliest recorded drug epidemics in the United States neatly demonstrates this point. In the late 1800s, consumers were delighted to discover narcotics such as morphine and laudanum. These medications had the ability to severely decrease pain, and it’s likely that they produced an extreme amount of benefit for many people in agony from incurable problems. However, others chose to divert the drugs for pleasure, and abuse rates began to soar. Some of the problems this experimentation caused might seem strikingly modern to you. For example, according to a report in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, needle sharing among drug users was reported in the United States as early as 1914, and resulted in shared diseases, including malaria. As this example makes clear, some of the harms associated with illicit drugs have existed within the culture for an amazingly long time.

Drugs in Commercial Products

You might never consider giving drugs to small children, and you might certainly never expect to buy illicit drugs at the grocery store. But in the 1800s and 1900s, many parents were able to do both of these things with ease. Consider these examples of products available to consumers:

  • Cocaine toothache drops. These pills were available in most drugstores, and as the name makes clear, they contained mainly cocaine. The drops were reported to provide an “instantaneous cure” for both children and adults.
  • Stickney and Poor’s Paragoric. This formula, provided for both adults and children, contained both opium and alcohol.
  • Fraser’s Tablets. These pills, made for people with asthma, contained heroin.
  • Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. This liquid was provided to help calm teething babies. Its main ingredient was morphine.

Source: Addiction Research Unit, University at Buffalo

Tuning In and Dropping Out

In the 1960s, an entire generation of Americans began to experiment with new classes of drugs. Instead of using narcotic-based drugs that could be numbing or soothing, they turned to hallucinogenic drugs that could provide users with new experiences and a feeling of harmony with the world.

If you grew up during the 1960s, it’s likely that you heard coded messages about drug use each and every time you turned on the radio and heard songs such as “Incense and Peppermints” or “White Rabbit.” You might have even heard debates about drug use on the news or around the dinner table.

As drug use moved from the fringes of society to the center of the culture, many people began to experiment with these illicit substances. According to a report in the journal Addiction, incidence of marijuana use began to rise in the 1960s, as did cocaine use. Some of these substances are so powerful and so addictive that even a small amount of experimentation can quickly lead to a full-blown addiction. As addiction rates began to climb, policy holders began to take notice, and they began to make sweeping reforms in order to eliminate drugs from society. Products containing drugs disappeared from almost all drugstores, and in 1973, President Richard Nixon developed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to help combat drug production. According to the DEA website, the organization had 1,470 agents and a budget of less than $75 million when it was created. Soon, the organization would determine that this was far from an adequate amount.

Quotes From the Famous

As drug addiction became more accepted, celebrities became more comfortable discussing their drug use, and some of their statements may have fanned the flames of drug abuse and addiction. This quote from George Harrison of The Beatles about his drug use proves this point quite well: “Suddenly I felt the most incredible feeling come over me. It was something like a very concentrated version of the best feeling I’d ever had in my whole life. It was fantastic. I felt in love, not with anything or anybody in particular, but with everything. Everything was perfect, in a perfect light, and I had an overwhelming desire to go ‘round the club telling everybody how much I loved them—people I’d never seen before.”

Saying No

According to the DEA Museum & Visitors Center, drug use in the United States peaked in 1979 when one in 10 Americans used drugs on a regular basis. Many drugs were declared illegal by this time, including:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • LSD

However, many people continued to use these drugs. As jail sentences began to increase for possessing even small amounts of illegal drugs, and drug enforcement agencies began to severely crack down on the importation and distribution of drugs, some users found drug use to be too risky or too dangerous to continue with. In addition, effective treatments for addiction began to come into play, allowing people who were addicted to get the help they needed in order to stop supporting the drug trade.

Drug abuse also became much less acceptable by society in general during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Children in school were encouraged to “Just Say ‘No'” to experimenting with drugs, and parents were encouraged to monitor their children closely for drug use and ensure that their children knew that drugs weren’t safe. Employers also began screening employees for drug use, and this may have encouraged some workers to stop using in order to hang onto the jobs they needed.

It’s also likely that the shifting opinions about drug addiction and its devastating consequences had some impact on addiction rates. In the past, addiction was considered an individual problem that was specific to one person at one time. As the threat of infections with HIV/AIDS due to needle sharing and risky behaviors became clear, administrators began to think of addiction as a global problem that impacted the entire community, not just the addict. This quote from the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, attributed to a United Kingdom drug researcher in the 1980s, makes this shift quite clear: “HIV has simplified the debate and we now see the emergence of what I will call the public health paradigm. Rather than seeing drug use as a metaphorical disease, there is now a real medical problem associated with injecting drugs. All can agree that this is a major public health problem for people who inject drugs, their sexual partners and their children.” Policies began to shift from punishing the offender to helping the drug addict, or at least reducing the amount of harm that user could come to. These shifts may have also decreased use rates and addiction rates.

Illicit Drugs and Poverty

Throughout history, illicit drug use has often been linked to poverty. This is true around the world. For example, according to a study published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, poor proficiency in English, lower educational status and low economic status were associated with illicit drug use in Canada. The same is likely true in the United States. Combatting illicit drug use in this segment of the population is incredibly important.

Future Directions

According to an article published in TIME in 2009, the United States government had spent over $2.5 trillion fighting against drugs. As you probably know, however, the fight is far from over. In fact, it’s likely that you know someone intimately who either has a current problem with drugs or is recovering from an addiction to drugs. Even if you don’t, you may hear news about drug cartels in Mexico and Columbia, killing residents in order to stay in business creating and selling illicit drugs to willing buyers.

It can be frustrating and depressing to think that addiction is still very much in play, despite the hard work of so many people.

There are many, many reasons to be hopeful, however. Addiction research is becoming increasingly sophisticated, allowing researchers to understand how some drugs of abuse work on specific areas of the brain. Researchers are also homing in on genes that could influence both drug abuse and drug addiction. As this research progresses, effective treatments to combat addiction are likely to emerge, and this could change addiction rates in this country and around the world for good.

In addition, more and more people are learning about how addictions take hold, and this might make it less likely that people will experiment with drugs. If you know that taking methamphetamine, even once, can change the way your brain looks on a brain scan for the following seven years, you might be less likely to use meth. Knowledge might truly be the best way to combat addiction, and that knowledge is growing. Addiction might never disappear, but again, there are good reasons to be hopeful that the end of a major blight might be in sight.