Mind-altering drugs have played a role in recorded history for thousands of years. Pain relief, treatment of illnesses, spiritual experiences and expanding one’s consciousness have all been cited as reasons for experimentation with well-known potent substances. Medical necessity has driven such experimentation, as has simple curiosity, for millennia.
The United States has been embroiled in debates over the dangers and possible benefits of drug use since our nation’s founding, and some of the history behind American drug use may surprise you. For example, many of the most well-known hard drugs today started as over-the-counter remedies for common ailments, while others were once acceptable in medical settings.
The opium poppy has been considered a medicinal herb for as far back as 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumer. Opium and its derivatives are some of the most powerful and useful medicines on the planet.
Some of the earliest Pilgrims to arrive in North America brought opium tinctures, especially laudanum, a potent pain and cough suppressant, as treatments for various illnesses and infirmities, such as:
- Trouble sleeping
Opium-based tonics were especially popular with women at the time, as they were commonly used to alleviate menstrual cramping.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the U.S.’s most well-known and influential founders, resorted to using laudanum to treat his various afflictions, despite his marked history of skepticism toward medicine. Eventually, he began growing his own poppies at his Monticello estate in Virginia.
While laudanum was an oft-used medical treatment for various ailments, many people were beginning to experiment with opium use for recreational purposes. Opiate use was prevalent during that era, and by the mid-19th century, opium dens were a common sight in the Americas. This was one of the first times that widespread public drug use was acknowledged as a societal concern, and “Yellow Peril” became a term used to describe Chinese immigrants who were accused of luring Americans into depravity and addiction with their popular opium dens.
The Arrival Of Morphine
The next major breakthrough regarding opium development came in 1803, when Friedrich Sertuerner of Germany synthesized the first batch of morphine, an injectable and highly potent opiate painkiller. Morphine was widely used and available, and wounded veterans heavily relied upon it during the American Civil War. This led to a widespread wave of addiction in the United States during the late 1800s.
Heroin: From Accepted Treatment To Epidemic
In 1895, chemist Heinrich Dreser developed heroin while working for the Bayer company in Germany, and the substance quickly gained traction as a treatment for morphine addiction. However, the drug’s immediate success did not adequately show that physicians were simply trading one addiction for another. Heroin addiction became the new epidemic.
Over the next 50 years, heroin would remain a prevalent force in American culture. The infamous “French Connection” led to an enormous supply of heroin being brought into the U.S., fueling the rebellious subcultures of the beatnik and hipster scenes. During the Vietnam War, American servicemen commonly fell victim to heroin abuse, and the addiction rate among this group was an ominous 10 to 15 percent.
Synthetic Opiates Gain Prominence
Over the years, opioids (synthetic opiates) have collectively evolved into one of the most commonly used prescription medications in the United States. Unfortunately, while opioids possess real pain management capabilities, the potential for addiction and abuse goes hand-in-hand with the drugs’ possible benefits. The CDC reports that nearly 3 million Americans are facing some kind of opioid abuse problem in 2016, and this class of meds has helped make drug overdose the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In fact, more than half of all drug-overdose deaths are attributed to either prescription opioids or heroin.
Cocaine, a stimulant taken from the leaves of the coca plant, is powerful and highly addictive. It was first discovered by Spanish explorers who reached South America, where the indigenous people commonly chewed coca leaves for their stimulating effects. The Spanish saw an opportunity to bring this plant home to Europe, but shipments rarely survived the journey across the Atlantic.
It would not be until the late 1800s that the potential of the coca leaf would be unlocked. Although illegal today in the U.S., cocaine became known for its medical applications after its successful synthesis in 1855. The drug was a common ingredient in tonics and medicines meant to treat impotence, depression and a host of other common ailments.
In 1863, Angela Mariani, a Corsican chemist, developed a mixture of cocaine and wine that was sold to cure stomach ailments and suppress appetite. It was wildly popular among the European elite and led to countless copycat products.
One such facsimile was a new soft drink made by John Pemberton in 1886, who was hoping to replicate Mariani’s successful formula in America. Contention over alcohol in the South led to Pemberton’s being forced to reformulate his invention with soda water. Cocaine lent its name to this concoction, and it became one of the most well-known commercial products in world history: Coca-Cola.
Evolution Of Cocaine Use
In the 19th century, cocaine was also known as a reliable local anesthetic for dentistry and oral care. Cocaine lozenges and cough syrups were very common, and syringes for injecting cocaine were later given to soldiers during the First World War.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a huge spike in recreational drug use, and cocaine was among the most ubiquitous and easily accessible. One of the major contributing factors to the increase in drug use in the U.S. was alcohol prohibition, which inadvertently steered many citizens toward other methods of inebriation.
The first half of the 1900s saw an explosion in the popularity of cocaine among the stars of Hollywood. Strangely enough, despite its popularity, cocaine’s addictive properties and potential for overdose went largely unreported. This only helped the drug’s popularity to soar, cementing its spot as a prime recreational drug over the next several decades. Several publications included depictions of cocaine use as a luxurious habit reserved for the upper strata of the social elite.
Glamorization Of Cocaine And The Emergence Of ‘Crack’
Unapologetic reports that showcased cocaine use as harmless, classy and opulent led to a dramatic spike in public consumption. This uptick peaked in 1982 with an estimated 10.4 million cocaine users in the U.S. Demand was widespread at the time, and urban areas began to see derivatives of this upper-class sensation in the form of crack cocaine, or simply “crack.” Crack was cheap to produce in large quantities, and it helped fuel in huge spikes in violent crime, as competing drug syndicates fought over territory.
One of the major incidents that helped change the public’s perceptions about the apparent safety of cocaine use was the death of basketball player Len Bias in 1986. Bias was a star rookie drafted by the Boston Celtics. While celebrating his addition to the team, he died of a cocaine overdose and heart issues the drug caused. This high-profile death coupled with a dramatic rise in violent crime led to harsher sentencing for drug-related offenses – especially those involving crack.
Public opinion of marijuana has swayed greatly in recent years. Many American states have decriminalized its use, legalized it for medicinal applications and/or fully legalized it for adult for recreational use. Marijuana’s history in the United States dates back to the Jamestown settlers around 1600.
Being that hemp and cannabis sativa plants contain one of the strongest natural fibers in the world, early American settlers used hemp for ropes, clothing, sails and many other products until the end of the Civil War. During this time, marijuana was prized for its usefulness in manufacturing, rather than its effects on the human body. Hashish was made from the resin of the marijuana plant and was only mildly popular for smoking in the U.S.
Marijuana’s popularity as a recreational drug did not gain much traction until the early 1900s. Between 1850 and 1937, anyone could purchase marijuana over the counter at pharmacies for medicinal purposes. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 led to a drastic increase in the number of Mexican immigrants coming to America, and marijuana was widely used for recreational purposes in Mexico at the time. Marijuana’s popularity jumped again following the Volstead Act, which sharply increased in price in 1920 due to the nationwide prohibition of alcohol.
Eventually, marijuana use became synonymous with violent crimes, and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 criminalized its consumption. Despite these changes, marijuana’s popularity as a recreational alternative to alcohol grew and reached new social spheres over the next several decades.
In the 1970s, Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges, and President Jimmy Carter’s administration pushed to decriminalize marijuana. However, public opinion swayed in the opposite direction, which led to President Ronald Reagan signing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which reinstated mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related charges.
Evolution Of Public Opinion
In the 2010s, marijuana has become much more widely accepted for its medical applications and relative lack of dangerous side effects. It is impossible to overdose from using it, has never been linked to any fatal bodily harm, and is not physically habit-forming, like cocaine and heroin.
However, despite a great deal of public support for marijuana decriminalization, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still considers marijuana to be a Schedule I narcotic – on par with heroin in terms of danger.
How Did Marijuana Land On The Schedule I List?
Marijuana was assigned its Schedule I status as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Many members of the scientific and medical communities argue against the DEA’s stance on marijuana, citing their sources as incomplete, archaic or outright erroneous.
Recordings of President Richard Nixon from 1971 showed that he intended to uphold the country’s prohibition of marijuana in an effort to combat detractors of the Vietnam War. The Shafer Commission was created with the sole purpose of engineering damning scientific evidence meant to maintain marijuana’s Schedule I status.
Unfortunately for Nixon, the Shafer Commission’s results proved exactly the opposite of the intended results:
- Marijuana was as safe (if not safer) than alcohol.
- It had no addictive qualities.
- Public health would benefit from ending marijuana prohibition.
An interview with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s aides, revealed that the War on Drugs was largely spurred by the perceived need to discredit minority communities and anti-war, leftist opposition to Nixon’s re-election and the war in Vietnam.
Ehrlichman said in the interview:
“By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meeting, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The DEA has repeatedly stonewalled any and all attempts to reclassify marijuana and take it off of the Schedule I narcotics list. The DEA even denied a petition to reschedule marijuana that came from its own administrative law judge, Francis Young, in 1988. In 2011, the DEA again denied a petition due to an apparent lack of available research dedicated to analyzing the effects of smoking marijuana.
Medical Professionals’ Current Stance
A 2014 Medscape survey showed that 56 percent of reporting physicians supported national legalization of medical cannabis, and 82 percent of reporting oncologists said the same. Perhaps one of the most critical examples of the DEA’s intransigence was Administrator Michele Leonhart’s inability to explain how marijuana was just as dangerous as heroin at her appearance before Congress. Marijuana has no lethal overdose threshold, whereas prescription opioids caused 19,000 American deaths in 2014 alone.
Changing Public Perception On Illegal Drugs
Public perception is one of the biggest issues surrounding drugs in modern America. Many people believe that decriminalization of drug use will lead to improved public health for several reasons, including the chance that it might quell the stigmatization that commonly accompanies Americans who have faced drug-related charges.
In terms of prescription opioids, despite the number of deaths they cause every year, they are still widely available and frequently prescribed. Opioid addiction is seriously debilitating and remarkably difficult to overcome. Rather than looking for alternatives to these dangerous medications, legislators seem to expect those who are prescribed these medicines to use them diligently, lest they suffer the consequences or become addicted. And when they become addicted to these prescription drugs, many resort to heroin as a cheaper and more accessible alternative once the prescription runs out.
The War on Drugs has essentially become a war on public health. Addicts are ostracized and criminalized rather than afforded the treatment they need to become functional members of society again. Hopefully, as public opinion shifts toward compassion and logical legislation, the stigma surrounding drug use will not have such deleterious effects on public well-being. Addicts would then be able to safely pursue treatment and rehabilitation for their afflictions.