Humans have a long history of drug abuse having used drugs for thousands of years. Early civilization used wine from at least the time of the early Egyptians. The earliest recorded use of narcotics dates back to 4,000 B.C, with medicinal marijuana appearing in China around 2,737 B.C.
The extraction of active ingredients from psychoactive drugs did not occur until the 19th century. Thereafter, the emergence of unregulated and freely prescribed drugs, such as morphine, laudanum, and cocaine, laid the groundwork for modern addiction. People could buy these drugs in patented medicine bottles at local drugstores. During the American Civil War, wounded veterans returned home with their morphine kits. As a result, opium dens thrived. By the early 1900s, an estimated 250,000 morphine addicts lived in the United States.
Legislators began to take notice of the addiction epidemic over time. The first enacted legislation against drug abuse occurred in 1875, when opium dens became outlawed in San Francisco. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first national drug law, mandated accurate labeling of patented medicines with opium and other drugs. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act dictated that only licensed medical professionals and pharmacies could sell substantial doses of opiates or cocaine. The banning of heroin soon followed. The United States Supreme Court made it illegal for doctors and pharmacies to prescribe narcotics to addicts, even as part of an addiction treatment plan. As a result, the use of narcotics diminished by the 1920s. The prohibition of alcohol occurred in 1919, but was later repealed in 1933.
In the 1930s, most states required anti-drug education in public schools; however, fears of experimentation caused it to be abandoned. After the repeal of Prohibition, the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics began a campaign to portray marijuana as an entry-level drug to other powerful narcotics. In the 1950s, use of marijuana increased in conjunction with amphetamines and tranquilizers. The social revolution of the 1960s brought with it a drastic increase in drug use, including hallucinogenic narcotics. By the early 1970s, some states and local jurisdictions had decriminalized marijuana and lowered the legal age to drink alcohol. A decline in the use of most drugs occurred during the 1980s, with the exception of cocaine and crack. The military became involved in border patrols, which led to the Panamanian invasion and capture of Manuel Noriega.
The public’s perception of the dangers of specific substances changed over time. The surgeon general’s warning about the addictive nature of nicotine-based products prompted people to think twice before lighting a cigarette. By 1995, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considered regulating tobacco use. Subsequently, the FDA labeled alcohol products with warnings of fetal alcohol syndrome. Other efforts to warn the public materialized, especially in regards to prescription drugs.
Federal and state law enforcement have tried to keep up with the changing perceptions and dangers of substance abuse. By 1970, federal drug laws and state enforcement carried steep penalties for those who violated them, especially for those who committed drug-related crimes. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 made it possible for legislators and law enforcement agencies to gain control over the drug abuse epidemic. While possession of illicit drugs was made punishable, the manufacture and distribution of narcotics carried the severest penalties. The Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 made it possible for addicts to seek residential treatment and outpatient rehabilitation. Further efforts continue to allow recovery for addicts who wish to seek help.
Follow these links to learn more about the history of drug abuse and alcohol abuse in the United States:
- A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs
- Perspectives on the History of Psychoactive Substance Use
- Substance Abuse and America: Historical Perspective on the Federal Response to a Social Phenomenon
- Painkillers: A Short History
- A Short History of Drugs (On TV)
- History of Substance Abuse (PDF)
- Stone Age Man Took Drugs, Say Scientists
- Module A-4: History of Drug Use (PDF)
- Drug Use Around the World: The History of Drug Use (PDF)
- Chapter 2: A History of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in America (PDF)
- Opium, Cocaine and Marijuana in American History (PDF)
- Pathology of Drug Abuse
- The History of Prescription Drugs
- A Brief History of the Drug War
- A Brief History of Anti-Doping
- Drugs and the Drug Laws: Historical and Cultural Contexts (PDF)
- The Origin of MDMA (Ecstasy) Revisited: The True Story Reconstructed from the Original Documents (PDF)
By Angela Lambert