Many drugs known for their addictive properties were once legal in the United States. Medical professionals routinely recommended drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and opium for conditions such as coughs or toothaches throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Marijuana, a drug currently undergoing scrutiny for legalization due to its medical benefits, was legal in the United States until the 1920s, when the federal government banned the herb across America. The founding of government organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture helped strengthen individual state laws regarding pharmaceuticals and poisons and ultimately led to federal or nationwide bans on drugs viewed as harmful or dangerous. New drugs often slip through the cracks and claim legal status until community concern leads to greater scrutiny and the passing of laws. Some drugs that once held legal status in the U.S. include MDMA (Ecstasy), LSD, peyote, methamphetamine, opium, heroin, marijuana, psilocybin (mushrooms) and the club drug GHB.
Heroin derives from the opium poppy and is one of the world’s oldest medicines. An analgesic, heroin was routinely used to calm nerves and cease pain. Morphine occurs naturally in opium, and in 1874, physicist and researcher Charles Romley Alder Wright added two acetyl groups to morphine and became the first person to synthesize heroin. Ironically, Wright’s goal was to create a less addictive form of morphine, as many used the drug throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but not without consequence. Wright’s new heroin was the rage, and the company Bayer, known for making aspirin, added the new ingredient to their cough suppressant formula in 1888. It wasn’t until 1913 when many realized heroin’s addictive and dangerous properties and Bayer removed it from their products. By 1930, heroin’s effects were well-known, and the U.S. established bans to prevent public sale or use of the drug. But many drugs have derived from opium that continue to have a place in the medical field. Codeine, morphine, and oxycodone are just a few opioids that have replaced heroin in modern medicine.
Cocaine is another dangerous drug that was once legal in the United States and used on a widespread basis. It’s naturally occurring in the coca plant, and many South American native peoples have used coca leaves as medicine for thousands of years. It wasn’t until chemists isolated the cocaine alkaloid from the leaves in 1855 that widespread use began throughout Europe and the United States. Cocaine has analgesic properties as well as being a stimulant, and companies marketed the product as a new miracle or wonder drug. By 1890, cocaine was appearing in children’s preparations for coughs, toothache remedies, and the original recipe for Coca-Cola (coca leaves were used), and the drug was being hailed for psychological purposes. Doctors routinely prescribed cocaine as a method of treating morphine addiction, and the famed neurologist Sigmund Freud became a frequent user who touted its therapeutic benefits, seemingly oblivious to its addictive qualities. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act passed and listed cocaine as one of the drugs prohibited for use outside of the medical profession. In 1922, the Jones-Miller Act greatly restricted the amount of cocaine legally manufactured in the U.S.; however, by that time, addiction was widespread and many who used the drug purchased it illegally. Other analgesics would soon replace cocaine in the medicine world, many of which are opioids. Codeine, fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine remain popular analgesics used when a patient is in great pain. As cocaine is a stimulant, there are alternatives that remain popular in modern medicine. Stimulants such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Concerta are frequently prescribed for those with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Doctors sometimes recommend prescription stimulants to treat obesity and narcolepsy in addition to ADHD. Doctors no longer prescribe stimulants for as many widespread ailments as was common throughout the early 20th century.
You may learn more about the history of addictive drugs and medications at the sites below.
- History of Marijuana
- Heroin: Origin and History
- LSD: Profile and History
- Drugs of Abuse
- Opium, Cocaine and Marijuana in American History
- History of Medication-Assisted Treatment for Opioid Addiction in Opioid Treatment Programs
- Milestones in U.S. Food and Drug Law History: Timeline
- A Guide History of Drug Use
- A History of the FDA and Drug Regulation in the United States
- Timeline: America’s War on Drugs
- Historical Background to Drug Discovery
- Cocaine: The Evolution of the Once ‘Wonder’ Drug
- Truth about Ecstasy’s Unlikely Trip from Lab to Dance Floor: Timeline
- Drug Prohibition and its Alternatives
- A Brief History of Psychopharmacology
- Opium Throughout History: Timeline
- Analgesics: Morphine and Opioid Analogues