The History of Illegal Drugs in America

Drug abuse and addiction has been a social problem in America for nearly a century. What may be surprising is that many of these illegal drugs were first introduced by doctors as legal over-the-counter and prescription medications. Here’s more about the history of illegal drugs in America. [Courtesy of]

History of Marijuana in America

Perhaps one of the oldest drugs in American history is marijuana, which was grown by the Jamestown settlers around 1600. Before the Civil War marijuana was a major source of revenue for the U.S., and marijuana plantations flourished during the 19th century. Marijuana was widely used as a medicinal drug from 1850 to 1937 and could even be purchased over the counter in pharmacies and general stores. Marijuana became an attractive alternative to alcohol after the price of alcohol was raised in 1920.

In the 1930s, studies began to emerge that linked marijuana use by lower class communities to crime and violence, leading to the eventual banning of marijuana in 1937. In the 1960s, marijuana use became a popular drug of choice among white Beatniks, and stricter penalties for marijuana offenses were passed under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Since then, citizens and politicians alike have pushed to have marijuana decriminalized, but it remains an illegal drug in the U.S. Marijuana was, however, legalized for medical use in California in 1966 for people with serious illnesses, and medical marijuana still remains legal in some states.

History of Methamphetamine in America

The stimulant amphetamine first became popular in the medical community in the 1920s, where it was used for stimulating the central nervous system, raising blood pressure, and enlarging nasal passages. Amphetamines were widely distributed to soldiers during World War II to combat fatigue and improve endurance and mood, and were prescribed by doctors after the war to help fight depression.

Amphetamine abuse began during the 1930s when it became an over-the-counter inhalant drug marketed under the name Benzedrine. As more and more people legally used amphetamines, an illegal black market began to emerge. Illegal amphetamines were used commonly by truck drivers who wanted to stay alert on long commutes and athletes looking to improve their performance. Students also began taking illicit amphetamines to help them study.

The practice of injecting amphetamines gained popularity in the 1960s, which led the emergence of underground labs that were mainly controlled by outlaw motorcycle groups. During the 1970s, amphetamine use began to decline due to increased public awareness of its dangers and remained on a decline until the 1990s when crystal methamphetamine, a smokable form of methamphetamine, emerged. Since then, crystal meth has remained a popular drug of choice for three main types of users: high school and college students; blue-collar Caucasians; and unemployed persons in their 20s and 30s.

History of Cocaine in America

Cocaine was a popular medical drug in Europe for decades before it became popular in America. In 1886, “Coca-Cola” was introduced and contained syrup derived from coca leaves. That same year the Surgeon-General of the United States Army endorsed medical use of cocaine. Over the next few decades various unregulated medicinal “tonics” were sold in the U.S. containing cocaine, and hundreds of Hollywood silent movies depicted scenes of cocaine use. By 1902 there were an estimated 200,000 cocaine addicts in the U.S.

Cocaine was finally outlawed in 1914 and declined in usage over the decades until it regained popularity in the 1970s as a recreational, glamorized drug, eventually reaching its peak in 1982 with 10.4 million users. Some U.S. media declared cocaine as non-addictive and it was viewed as a relatively harmless drug until the emergence of crack in 1985.

History of Crack Cocaine in America

Crack, a form of cocaine that is sold as “rocks” and smoked, first appeared in large U.S. cities around 1985. Crack became a popular alternative to cocaine in urban and working-class areas because it was much cheaper than cocaine. This led to a dramatic increase in crack use known as the “Crack Epidemic of the 1980s.” A major crackdown on crack abuse was launched, leading to its eventual decline in usage.

History of LSD in America

LSD first emerged on the American scene during the 1950s, when the U.S. military and CIA researched the use of LSD as a “truth drug” that could be used to make prisoners talk. This led the psychiatric community to become interested in LSD for its possible therapeutic capabilities for depressed, psychotic and epileptic patients.

Illegal use of LSD began to escalate during the late 1950s and 1960s as mental health professionals and research study participants began to distribute the drug among their friends. LSD was only available through connections to the medical field until 1962, when a black market for LSD emerged in America. LSD was made illegal in 1966 and, soon after, an LSD black market emerged. Users began experiencing growing problems with the “new” LSD, which was contaminated and of a poorer quality than the medical-grade LSD they were used to. Despite its poorer quality, LSD was a popular drug of choice for “hippies” during the mid- to late-1960s. LSD use declined in the 1970s and 1980s, but reemerged in the 1990s in the rave subculture along with other hallucinogens.

History of Heroin in America

Opiates were popular in the United States throughout the 19th century, particularly among upper- and middle-class women who were prescribed tonics and elixirs containing opium to cure “female problems.” The practice of smoking opium was introduced in the 1850s and 1860s by Chinese laborers who came to the U.S. to work on railroads.

The opiate-based drug morphine was created in 1803 and widely used during the American Civil War as an injectable pain reliever, leading to the first wave of morphine addiction. Interestingly, the drug heroin was created in 1895 and marketed three years later as a potential solution to the increasing problem of morphine addiction. The charitable St. James Society even mailed free samples of heroin to morphine addicts as part of a campaign against morphine addiction. As a result, heroin addiction began to take root and grow.

The second major wave of opiate addiction in America began in the 1930s and 1940s Harlem jazz scene, and again during the Beatnik subculture of the 1950s. During the Vietnam War, heroin abuse became rampant among U.S. soldiers stationed abroad, with an estimated 10% to 15% of servicemen addicted to heroin. Heroin users began smoking and snorting heroin after improvements were made in the purity of street heroin in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, heroin usage rose significantly in the 1990s.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.