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U.S. History of Illicit Drugs

U.S. History of Illicit Drugs

What Is the History of Illicit Drugs in the U.S.?

The United States currently has a problem with illicit drug use. 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 every turn, it’s understandable why some people turn to drugs 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 mixed.

It’s unclear  when the first drugs were discovered. Some attribute the discovery to native cultures, which often included  hallucinogenic plants in their healing rituals. Others suggest that ancient cultures experimented with fermentation to decrease pain and increase pleasure. 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.

Americans have been abusing drugs like morphine and laudanum since the 1800s. There are even reports of people sharing needles from as long ago as 1914. At some point, drug use was legitimized for use in medications, including concoctions given to children. Before the FDA regulated the world of pharmaceuticals, it wasn’t unusual to find illicit drugs used in remedies for common maladies.

Back in the day, cocaine was used to treat toothaches. Medications routinely contained opium and alcohol and were given to people who had a “case of the nerves.” Asthma was treated with heroin, and teething syrup for infants contained morphine.

In the late 1800s, consumers were delighted to discover morphine and laudanum. These narcotics were marketed to consumers as cure-all medications that could treat anything. Though they were intended for medicinal use, some people began abusing the “medicines” and addiction rates skyrocketed.

In the 1960s, drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and LSD gained popularity and became widely used. The 60s saw an entire generation of Americans begin to openly experiment with new types of drugs. Instead of the narcotic-soothing drugs of the 1800s, Americans in the 60s sought out hallucinogenic drugs that could help them have “new” experiences. Use of marijuana and cocaine became widespread in the 60s as people continued to challenge the status quo of post-WWII America.

Cocaine remained popular through the 1980s and even 1990s, and today prescription opioids have become a national epidemic, continuing this pattern of illicit drug use in our country.

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.1]

At its creation, the agency had just 1,470 agents and a budget of less than $75 million. It was quickly determined that the country needed a far greater task force to help police the drug routes and keep communities safe.

Saying No

Drug use peaked in 1979 when one in 10 Americans used drugs on a regular basis. Many drugs were declared illegal by this time, including most that were added to medicinal tinctures in the 1800s.

However, many people continued to use these drugs. As jail sentences began to increase for possessing even small amounts of illegal drugs, and drug task forces began to crack down on the importation and distribution of drugs, many users quickly abandoned their drugs of choice because they were too dangerous.2

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, in part because of a campaign created by Nancy Reagan. The “Just Say No” campaign began in 1982 when the former First Lady visited an elementary school in Oakland, California. In response to the raging crack-cocaine epidemic of the time, celebrities and mainstream media quickly adapted the phrase as part of a nationwide push to deter children from using drugs.3

Shifting opinions about drug addiction and its devastating consequences had some impact on addiction rates. Prior to Reagan’s campaign, addiction was considered an individual problem that was specific to one person at one time.

Combined with the crack-cocaine epidemic and the sudden emergence of HIV/AIDS within specific population groups, it was obvious that the nation needed a clear and direct approach to dealing with drug use.

Virginia Burridge, a PhD researcher whose career has focused on public health concepts, illicit drug use prevention, and injection control strategies said that, “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.”4

Policies began to shift from punishing the offender to helping the drug addict, or at least reducing the amount of harm that the user could come to. These shifts may have also decreased use rates and addiction rates.

Future Directions

The War on Drugs, as it has come to be known, has cost the U.S. government an exorbitant amount of money. In 2015, it was estimated the federal government spent an estimated $9.2 million dollars every day to combat drugs.5 Every 25 seconds, someone in the US is arrested for drug possession and this number has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015. [6] That’s six times higher than the number of arrests for drug sales.7

Though these statistics are alarming, there is some hope. Many areas around the country are implementing new strategies to help with the difficulties that come from being addicted to drugs. Addiction research is better funded than ever before, allowing the scientific community to understand how addiction works. In turn, this helps develop revolutionary approaches to addiction treatment.

The stigma surrounding addiction continues to be lifted as more and more people are learning about how addictions take hold. Eventually, this might make people less likely to 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 may never disappear, but  there are good reasons to hope  that the end of this major blight might be in sight.


  1. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). History.
  2. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). 1975-1980.
  3. History Channel. (2018). Just Say No.
  4. Berridge, V., Bourne, S. (2005).  Illicit drugs, infectious disease and public health: A historical perspectiveCan J Infect Dis Med Microbiol. 16(3), 193-196.
  5. Pearl, B. (2018). Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers. Center for American Progress.
  6. Human Rights Watch. (2016). Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States.
  7. Wagner, P., Sawyer, W. (2018). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018. Prison Policy Initiative.

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