The History of Drug Use in the United States

In the late 1980s, “Just Say No” became the cornerstone of the U.S. war on drugs and was resonate of the nation’s hatred of illegal, recreational drug use. This, however, would not be the last American anti-drug campaign, and it certainly wasn’t the first. Drug addiction in the United States has always been a concern of the majority, dating as far back as the 16th century.

The world’s first anti-drug campaign came from the Catholic Church, commissioned by the First Council of Lima. In 1552, after seeing European explorers becoming addicted to leaves from the Erythroxylon coca plant in the New World, the First Council of Lima petitioned the king, stating:

“The plant is idolatry and the work of the Devil…it possesses no virtue but shortens the life of many Indians who at most escape from the forests with ruined health…”

From here America would start a long history—a cycle—of increased drug abuse in the United States, growth in addiction, and the need for rehabilitation.

While there were many substances being abused throughout American history—alcohol and cigarettes, just to name a few—the substances that most afflicted Americans both then and today are marijuana, cocaine, heroin, opiates, and prescription pills. When looking at drug addiction statistics, it is extremely disheartening. While underage alcohol consumption and tobacco use are down, those engaging in illicit drugs are growing at an alarming rate. Moreover, in the last decade, for the first time in United States history, more Americans began dying from drug use than from drinking.

The Invention of Drugs in the 19th Century

The nineteenth century opened America up to many new substances; substances that were non-indigenous to Americans or created by science. While the majority of these drugs were for medicinal use, they became quickly abused and led to addiction. The four new, addictive drugs of the 19th century were morphine, cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.


Morphine, an opium derivative, was originally used for medicinal purposes. Upon its creation, it was seen as a cure-all for every imaginable ailment. Ironically, it was believed to be non-addictive and it was used in the treatment of curing opium addicts. Although medical professionals quickly saw morphine addiction afflicting their patients, when the hypodermic needle and syringe were introduced in 1850, physicians thought this would be an opportunity to administer morphine in a way that wouldn’t allow people to become addicted. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

Morphine was the most common pain killer used during the American Civil War. There were a large number of soldiers, both in the North and South, that became addicted to morphine. Post-war morphine addiction became so prevalent among American Civil War veterans that the drug became known as the “Soldier’s Disease.”


Much like morphine, a pure form of cocaine was created for medicinal purposes. It was used by prominent surgeon Dr. William Halsted as both a local anesthesia and as a cure for his morphine addiction. Dr. Halsted was not the only significant figure of the 19th century to believe that cocaine cured morphine addiction. Sigmund Freud, a notable neurologist, was also a proponent of its addiction-curing powers.

Possibly the most common reference to cocaine in American history is in regards to Coca-Cola. In 1885, John Styth Pemberton, the man behind such patent medicines as Triplex Liver Pills and Globe of Flower Cough Syrup, announced “French Wine Coca–Ideal Nerve and Tonic Stimulant.” This product relied heavily on extract of highly addictive coca leaves. The following year Pemberton presented a syrup to the world called “Coca-Cola.” In 1906, after the federal Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted, Coca-Cola switched from using unadulterated coca leaves to de-cocainized leaves.


Marijuana, a drug which history dates back to 2000 BC, was first considered a legitimate drug with helpful medicinal purposes. It was not until the 1850s that Americans started to use marijuana for nonmedical purposes. In an 1869 issue of Scientific America, leading scientific minds in the American community published the truth behind non-medicinal marijuana usage:

“The drug hashish, the cannabis indica of the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the resinous product of hemp, grown in the East Indies and other parts of Asia, is used in those countries to a large extent for its intoxicating properties and is doubtless used in this country for the same purpose to a limited extent.”

By 1872, the United States was forced to acknowledge the rapid growth of marijuana use for purposes other than that of curative medicine. Popular magazines and newspapers during the era began writing articles exposing the indulgent and often habitual use of the “hasheesh,” as it was then referred to in its recreational form. Sheer curiosity led to extreme experimental use of the drug among young professionals and even physicians, as people in the United States began to realize the wealth of properties not originally attributed to cannabis.


What has been known in United States history as “the last legal opiate,” Heroin was produced commercially in 1898, by the Bayer Pharmaceutical Company. Heroin became increasingly popular over the next several years as the scientific community claimed that heroin was a substitute for morphine, with less addictive properties. Unfortunately, it turned out that heroin was also highly addictive.

It was not long before each state passed legislation to remove Bayer’s drug from store shelves. In 1925, legislation was passed to make heroin illegal in the United States. Today’s heroin is unlike the heroine of the 1800s. Heroin found on the streets today is in the form of a white or brownish powder, or a black sticky substance known as “black tar” heroin. It is usually mixed with other drugs or substances such as sugar, starch, powdered milk, talc, baking soda, caffeine, cocaine, or quinine, though there is some indication that pure forms of heroin are becoming available.

There have been at least two major heroin epidemics in the United States. The first one began after World War II and the second began in the late 1960s. At the time of the second epidemic, heroin use was prevalent among enlisted men in the Vietnam War. Because most of the enlisted men were 18-20 years old, unable to buy alcohol because of their age, they had an added incentive to use heroin since they were unable to drink on the base.

drugs introduced to the US in the 19th century

State Legislation and Drug Control History

Each state had its own problems when it came to illicit drug use. Below are some of the leaders, innovators, and solvers of drug problems in their respective regions.


One of the states with the longest history of combating illegal drug use is California. In 1872, California passed the first anti-opium law. This held that “the administration of laudunum, an opium preparation, or any other narcotic to any person with the intent thereby to facilitate the commission of a felony” now constituted a felony. In 1881, the California legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor to maintain an establishment where opium was sold or smoked. This bill only applied to opium dens, not to those smoking opium in the privacy of their own home; therefore, there was no reason for opium users to quit smoking.

In 1881, California became the first state to establish a separate department with the sole purpose of enforcing narcotic laws. However, once California officials saw that prevention was not enough of a deterrent to curtail addiction, it became one of the first states to treat addicts. Unfortunately, opium was only a small portion of the problems that would come for California.

After a surge of bad LSD trips in the mid-1960s, California passed the Grunsky Bill In 1966. It prohibited the possession, sale, manufacture, and importation of LSD and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) into the state; however, the law was ineffective and the following year would lead to what has famously been called the Summer of 1967 or the Summer of Love. Over 100,000 people, from every corner of the nation, travelled to Haight-Ashbury (in San Francisco) to celebrate the Summer of Love. Here they gathered to partake in universal love, freed consciousness, inner peace, and LSD.

Ironically, one of the states that first made marijuana illegal was California. Adding “locoweed” to the state Poison Act, in 1913, marijuana was illegal in California for almost 100 years before becoming the first state to establish a medical marijuana program.

With drug abuse being California’s number one premature killer, 85 percent of addicts will never receive the treatment they need.


In 1929, Colorado passed anti-marijuana laws that were aimed at stopping Mexican laborers who were bringing cannabis with them when they came to America, to work in Colorado’s sugar fields. This state legislation led the way for the national government to create the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1932.

Just five years later, the District of Columbia and 46 states had adopted some form of legislation against marijuana.

While Colorado was a trendsetter in its attempts to impede usage in growth, one hopes that their current state is not foreshadowing the future for the rest of the United States.

In a recent report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Colorado was listed as the state among the highest users of marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol. As if this information was not enough, the other two main classes of illegal narcotics are increasing at an alarming rate. Both heroin and prescription pill overdoses are at an all-time high for Colorado.


In 1926, several New Orleans newspapers published a series of exposes on how menacing marijuana was to the city. The new article reported that sailors from Cuba and South American countries were importing large amounts of cannabis into New Orleans. Due to the ease of accessibility, marijuana became widespread amongst the entire Louisiana population.

In 1927, Louisiana passed a law providing for a six months’ imprisonment or a fine of $500 for the sale or possession of marijuana. For a short time this led to a significant decrease in the importation of marijuana; however, the relief to the state was only temporary. Furthermore, the crafty and resourceful Louisiana residents just began to grow their own.

When we say that residents began to grow their own marijuana, we aren’t talking about enough just for personal use, but cash crops. In 1930, one large crop found near New Orleans was estimated to be worth $50,000, that’s $700,000 in today’s dollars. Unhappy with the results of the Louisiana laws passed in 1927, Commissioner Harry Anslinger submitted to Congress a proposal which became the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This act imposed taxes on physicians prescribing cannabis and those manufacturing and selling marijuana. Additionally, it made non-medical and untaxed sale or possession of the substance a crime.


While Florida, especially Miami, is known as one of the first cities to push large quantities of crack rock and, more recently, being at the center of America’s bath salt crisis; however, a statistic that is often overlooked is in regards to the amount of OxyContin that is prescribed each month.

When looking at the top ten states with the highest number of prescriptions written for OxyContin, only two had Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP). A chart published by The White House and the DEA shows the states’ rank, ordered according to the purchases of oxycodone products by licensed practitioners in the first six months of 2010. Florida, which does not have a PDMP, is the number one prescribing state in such purchases, with more than 40 times as many dosage units prescribed as the next‐leading state.

Along with being one of the states with the highest rates of illegal prescription drug diversions, Florida has also seen a huge increase in meth production. In the last two years, there has been a 148 percent increase in meth lab seizures.

New York

Where the west coast saw a massive growth in opium dens, the east coast had an influx in marijuana “tea pads.” While the east coast police hand their hands full with organized crime, the Great Depression and Prohibition, LSD and other hallucinogens began to heavily take over the state of New York. In 1965, New York passed laws requiring harder sentences for those in possession of, selling, or distributing LSD or LSD-like drugs. The New York tea pads, much like the alcohol speakeasies were tolerated by the city. By the 1930s, it is estimated that there were 500 tea pads in New York City alone.

With such a relaxed attitude on illicit drug use, it only took a few decades before drug use got completely out of control. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, taking a “tough on crime” stance on drug use, assisted in passing numerous New York State Penal Laws that dealt harsher sentences to those selling and possessing narcotic drugs. In 1973, Rockefeller signed The Rockefeller Drug Laws. These laws, as follows, gave the state of New York the distinction of having the toughest laws in regards to drugs.

“Under the Rockefeller drug laws, the penalty for selling two ounces (57 g) or more of heroin, morphine, “raw or prepared opium,” cocaine, or cannabis or possessing four ounces (113 g) or more of the same substances, was a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison.”


Unlike most states, Delaware’s biggest problem is not marijuana. When looking at the number one drug used by those enrolling in drug rehabilitation centers, prescription drugs are the largest abused drug. However, more than any other state, Delaware has had a significant increase in enrollment within drug rehabilitation center. By 2006, the state’s rehabilitation programs were operating at 95 percent capacity, up from 50 percent in 2001; and 70 percent of patients were attending regular treatment sessions, up from 53 percent, according to an analysis of the policy published last summer in the journal Health Policy.


Vermont is known for many things, unfortunately, one of them being the state with the highest rate of illicit drug use in the United States. A staggering 15 percent of the Vermont population has admitted to using illicit drugs within a one month time period during a 2011 study. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire 2014 State of the State address to address what he called a “full-blown heroin crisis.”

Taking note that from 2000 to 2013, there was a 250 percent increase in heroin addicts receiving treatment, Governor Shumlin sought to change the way in which Vermont’s government attempted to fix the heroin crisis. He stated that the state needs to “provid[e] treatment and support rather than simply doling out punishment, claiming victory, and moving on to our next conviction.”

In an attempt to improve the outlook for the citizens of Vermont, new policies were passed to provide those caught with heroin the option of avoiding prosecution by enrolling in rehabilitation. While this provides the guilty party an option, this plan is not drastically different from an 1874 law, passed by Connecticut, that allowed the stay to declare “narcotic addicts” incompetent and required that said addict would be committed to a state insane asylum until he was cured of his or her addiction.

US drug legislation

Underuse of Drug Rehabilitation Centers

Drug addiction is not just a problem of America’s past. Regrettably, drug rehabilitation centers (and specifically addiction treatment centers in Florida) are greatly underused.

While all the aforementioned statistic tends to show that government legislation has done little to subvert drug use, there must be something done to safeguard the future. America’s drug users are getting younger and younger. Approximately 24 percent of all 10th graders have used marijuana at least once in the past year. Statistics for harder drugs are also staggering; 5 percent of twelfth graders have used cocaine and 20 percent of twelfth graders have abused prescription drugs.

Possibly the most astounding statistics are the percentage of people–of all ages–not receiving the proper help that they need. When looking at statistics, more than 24 million United States residents, ages 12 or older, are currently suffering from drug addiction; however, only 11 percent of these will receive help from a professional treatment facility. Each year, more than 20,000 people die as a result of using illicit drugs. Moreover, in the past 20 years, the number of people with drug addictions in the United States has increased by more than 500 percent.

While drug addiction centers are definitely underutilized, insurance companies and the justice system are making it easier to enroll in drug rehabilitation and addiction programs. Now, more than ever, insurance companies are realizing the seriousness of addiction and are working with individuals to place them in treatment centers. Among older adolescent admissions to addiction programs, the most common source of referrals to treatment centers, more than 50 percent, was the criminal justice system. Additionally, as mentioned above, some states are offering enrollment into addiction centers in lieu of jail time. With the juvenile system working to correct America’s growing addiction problem, there may be some hope in the future.

Those that have abused drugs and are addicted have a long road ahead of them. There is a small percentage of addicts that relapse after spending time at a treatment facility; however, the majority of patients that seek help recover and live a successful life fighting their temptations and addictions.