Humans have used drugs of one sort or another for thousands of years. Wine was used at least from the time of the early Egyptians; narcotics from 4000 B.C.; and medicinal use of marijuana has been dated to 2737 B.C. in China. But not until the 19th cent. A.D. were the active substances in drugs extracted. There followed a time when some of these newly discovered substances—morphine, laudanum, cocaine—were completely unregulated and prescribed freely by physicians for a wide variety of ailments. They were available in patent medicines and sold by traveling tinkers, in drugstores, or through the mail. During the American Civil War, morphine was used freely, and wounded veterans returned home with their kits of morphine and hypodermic needles. Opium dens flourished. By the early 1900s there were an estimated 250,000 addicts in the United States.
The problems of addiction were recognized gradually. Legal measures against drug abuse in the United States were first established in 1875, when opium dens were outlawed in San Francisco. The first national drug law was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required accurate labeling of patent medicines containing opium and certain other drugs. In 1914 the Harrison Narcotic Act forbade sale of substantial doses of opiates or cocaine except by licensed doctors and pharmacies. Later, heroin was totally banned. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions made it illegal for doctors to prescribe any narcotic to addicts; many doctors who prescribed maintenance doses as part of an addiction treatment plan were jailed, and soon all attempts at treatment were abandoned. Use of narcotics and cocaine diminished by the 1920s. The spirit of temperance led to the prohibition of alcohol by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, but Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
In the 1930s most states required antidrug education in the schools, but fears that knowledge would lead to experimentation caused it to be abandoned in most places. Soon after the repeal of Prohibition, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Administration) began a campaign to portray marijuana as a powerful, addicting substance that would lead users into narcotics addiction. In the 1950s, use of marijuana increased again, along with that of amphetamines and tranquilizers. The social upheaval of the 1960s brought with it a dramatic increase in drug use and some increased social acceptance; by the early 1970s some states and localities had decriminalized marijuana and lowered drinking ages. The 1980s brought a decline in the use of most drugs, but cocaine and crack use soared. The military became involved in border patrols for the first time, and troops invaded Panama and brought its de facto leader, Manuel Noriega, to trial for drug trafficking.
Throughout the years, the public's perception of the dangers of specific substances changed. The surgeon general's warning label on tobacco packaging gradually made people aware of the addictive nature of nicotine. By 1995, the Food and Drug Administration was considering its regulation. The recognition of fetal alcohol syndrome brought warning labels to alcohol products. The addictive nature of prescription drugs such as diazepam (Valium) became known, and caffeine came under scrutiny as well.
Drug laws have tried to keep up with the changing perceptions and real dangers of substance abuse. By 1970 over 55 federal drug laws and countless state laws specified a variety of punitive measures, including life imprisonment and even the death penalty. To clarify the situation, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 repealed, replaced, or updated all previous federal laws concerned with narcotics and all other dangerous drugs. While possession was made illegal, the severest penalties were reserved for illicit distribution and manufacture of drugs. The act dealt with prevention and treatment of drug abuse as well as control of drug traffic. The Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 increased funding for treatment and rehabilitation; the 1988 act created the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Its director, often referred to as the drug "czar," is responsible for coordinating national drug control policy.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.