History of Drug Abuse in the United States
During the 19th century there were virtually no controls on the importation, sale, purchase, possession, or use of psychoactive drugs at the federal level and very few at the state level. Dangerous substances such as opium, cocaine, and morphine were basic ingredients in patent medicines that could be purchased by anyone for any reason, without a prescription. These nostrums were used to cure headaches, toothaches, depression, nervousness, alcoholism, menstrual crampsÑin fact, practically every human ailment.
As a result of the ready availability of addicting drugs, and as a result of their heavy use for medical problems, many individuals became addicted to the narcotics contained in these patent medicines. In fact, in 1900, there were more narcotics addicts, proportionate to the population, than there are today. At that time, most of the users who became addicts were medical addicts. Very few abusers took drugs for "recreational" purposes. In 1914, in an effort to curb the indiscriminate use of narcotics, the federal government passed the Harrison Act, making it illegal to obtain a narcotic drug without a prescription. During the 1920s the Supreme Court ruled that maintaining addicts on narcotic drugs, even by prescription, was in violation of the Harrison Act. Approximately 30,000 physicians were arrested during this period for dispensing narcotics, and some 3,000 actually served prison sentences. Consequently, doctors all but abandoned the treatment of addicts for nearly half a century in the United States.
The use of narcotic drugs dropped sharply in the United States between the 1920s, when there were as many as half a million addicts, and 1945, when the addict population was roughly 40,000 to 50,000. The recreational use of other drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, stimulants, hallucinogens, and sedatives, which are used so frequently today, also remained at extremely low levels during this period. The 1960s, however, was a watershed decade. The widening use of illegal drugs accompanied increased tolerance for a wide range of unconventional behavior. The period saw the growth of movements that stood in opposition to the war in Vietnam and to mainstream American culture, the coming into popularity of rock music, and enormous publicity devoted to drugs and their users and proselytizers.
During this time some social groups viewed drug use in positive terms and believed it a virtue to "turn on" someone who did not use drugs. Although media attention to drugs and drug use declined between the late 1960s and late 1970s, the use of drugs did not. The late 1970s and 1980s represent another turning point in the recreational use of marijuana, hallucinogens, sedatives, and amphetamines. Studies show a large drop in the use of most drug types through the 1980s, but a significant increase since 1990.
The 1980s witnessed the development of a new form of an old drug (crack), the widespread use of a drug that was not previously taken on a recreational basis ("Ecstasy," or MDMA), and the resurgence of a drug that was widely abused in the 1960s but then fell into disuse for a time (methamphetamine, or "ice"). Crack is a smokable derivative of cocaine that began to be used on a widespread basis starting in 1985; heavily abused in the inner cities in the late 1980s, it has since fallen off in use. Chemically related to amphetamines, MDMA was developed early in the 20th century as an appetite suppressant; it is not easily classified, although most observers regard it as a hallucinogen. In the 1980s it had a brief vogue among college students, intellectuals, and psychiatric patients seeking spiritual and therapeutic insight; its use has declined into the 1990s. Methamphetamine had a brief run among "speed freaks" in the late 1960s, who took huge intravenous doses on a compulsive, addicting basis. In 1989 "ice" emerged on the West Coast as a drug of choice. Its use has been far greater in someareas than others, and no national epidemic of methamphetamine abuse has developed.