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History Of Drug Use U.S. (Page 1 of 5)

By Elaine Casey

From Facts About Drug Abuse
The National Drug Abuse center
656 Quince Orchard Road Room 607
Gaithersburg, Maryland, 20760
Publication No. 79-FADA-041P
Printed: November, 1978

Originally posted at DRCNet

American opinion has always included some opposition to the non-medical use of any drug, including alcohol and tobacco. From colonial times through the Civil War, abstentionist outcries against alcohol and tobacco sporadically provoked prohibitory legislation.

One 18th century pamphleteer advised against the use of any drink which is liable to steal away a man's senses and render him foolish, irascible, uncontrollable and dangerous. Similarly, one nineteenth century observer attributed delirium tremens, perverted sexuality, impotency, insanity and cancer to the smoking and chewing of tobacco.

Despite such warnings, alcohol and tobacco use took deep root in American society. De Tocqueville noted what hard drinkers the Americans were, and Dickens was compelled to report that in all the public places of America, this filthy custom [tobacco chewing] is recognized. Nevertheless, the strain in our culture opposed to all non-medical drug use persisted (National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, 1972).


All manner of substances have been used by Americans throughout our history. Colonial residents and their predecessors relied on derivatives of natural substances to cure ailments, increase sexual potency, relieve pain--and to provide pure old fashioned pleasure.

Until the late 1800s, abstentionists and prohibitionists had a relatively easy task in identifying their targets for attack: Tobacco users were conspicuous in their enjoyment. Alcoholic beverage drinkers could be found in every saloon, and alcohol was served openly in homes and at social gatherings.

Even opium dens of the west coast were well known, and opium could be purchased readily, free from state or federal government controls.

Early prohibitionists may be the envy of the anti-drug movements of the twentieth century. Until the Controlled Substance Act was passed by Congress in 1970, anti-substance legislation was hard put to keep pace with (or even to categorize) the endless variety of natural substances and preparations, multi substance compounds, synthetic derivatives and improvements upon the natural that were adopted by different subcultures in the search for a new high or an intensified religious experience.

Physician-prescribed medications, once used for legitimate treatment, came into use as alternatives to illicit substances. Children inhaled glue and aerosols. Students, housewives, and truck drivers found a new way of life through consumption of prescribed and black-market sedatives and amphetamines.

Even LSD was no longer just acid. LSD-25 was joined by DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, nutmeg, morning glory seeds, peyote, mescaline, animal tranquilizers (PCP), and sundry combination capsules and tablets, as descendants of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture looked for new hallucinogens not yet outlawed by state and federal legislatures.

In short, the variety of twentieth century substances with potent for abuse confounded every abolitionist/prohibitionist effort. And the crazy-quilt patterns of new legislation reflected that confusion.

The resourcefulness of those determined to get high was remarkable. When one hallucinogen was outlawed, another took its place. With law enforcement agencies concentrating on dealers of marihuana and hashish, and putting more energy into locating users and sources of heroin, the weekend alcohol drinker soon had an opportunity to try smoking marihuana, found that he liked it, and often substituted it for alcohol at social occasions.

Younger Americans came to have increasingly easier access to black market marihuana, cocaine, prescription drugs, and animal tranquilizers.

Early Substance Habits

For Americans, the past 15-year period is not the first experience with a resourceful multi-drug culture.

Our European forebears, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century explorers, traders, and conquerors, were open to the pleasures and products of the new worlds.

The European explorers from Columbus on found other [in addition to alcohol] mind-affecting drugs, and brought them with them. Tobacco was discovered on Columbus' first voyage. Cocaine was found in large areas of South America. Caffeine and LSD-like drugs were found scattered all over the world ... the Europeans not only adopted nicotine and caffeine but spread them everywhere.

They also imported opium. In a remarkably short space of time, western Europe was converted from an alcohol-only culture to a multi-drug culture (Brecher, 1972).

Tobacco was first introduced to Europeans by American Indians. Sailors tried and adopted the practice, both smoking the leaf and chewing it, and brought tobacco home to England. But where a habit could be found, a prohibitionist was not far behind.

In 1575, the Catholic Church in Mexico passed a regulation forbidding smoking in church. In 1642 and 1650, Papal edicts against the use of tobacco were issued. The European states, Constantinople, Japan, and Russia all had anti-tobacco laws, but the practice continued against all opposition.

Russia's Czar Michael Feodorovitch, first of the Romanoffs, in 1634 pronounced a penalty that tends toward overkill: 'Offenders are usually sentenced to slitting of the nostrils, the bastinado, or the knout,' a visitor to Moscow reported. However, the visitor noted, tobacco was a premium commodity in Moscow, and smokers would pay any price for the precious leaf. (Brecher 1972)

Among other new habits the early explorers introduced into European culture were the many ways to enjoy caffeine: coffee from Arabia and Turkey; tea from China; the West African Kola nut, later used as a source of caffeine in cola drinks in nineteenth and twentieth century United States; drinks from the bean of Mexico's cocoa tree; Brazil's ilex plant, from which mate is brewed; and cassina, early used in a caffeine beverage by Indians living in the (now) Virginia to Florida region, and as far west along the Gulf coast as the Rio Grande.

European settlers in America soon adopted the cassina plant to their own uses, preparing a tea they called Black Drink, Black Drought, or dahoon, and later letting the leaves ferment to produce a brew containing both caffeine and alcohol (Brecher, 1972).

Spanish conquerors of Mexico found peyote in ritual use by the Incas who also had the habit of chewing leaves from the Erythroxylon coca plant. The practice of coca leaf use was encouraged by Spanish rulers as a means of controlling the Indian natives; but the Europeans had strong doubts about the habit, and refrained from using it themselves.

They did, however, try to curtail use of peyote and other indigenous herbal hallucinogens by the Aztecs, who had kept substance use as part of their religious practices since pre-Columbian times. Indian tribal use of peyote continued in spite of Spanish opposition, and the practice is still found in some areas today.

Cannabis sativa, too, was available in the early days of the new world. This plant was not indigenous to the Americas, but brought to the area by the Spaniards, with cannabis first appearing in Chile, where the Spanish introduced it in 1545 (Brecher, 1972).

The plant became a staple crop for colonial farmers, who reportedly grew it for its fiber. Along with tobacco, hemp became a major export crop for pre-Revolutionary American farmers.

The Jamestown settlers [brought] the plant [cannabis] to Virqinia in 1611 and cultivated it for its fiber. Marihuana was introduced into New England in 1629.

From then until after the Civil War, the marihuana plant was a major crop in North America, and played an important role in both colonial and national economic policy...George Washington was growing hemp in 1765 at mount Vernon... presumably for its fiber, though it has been argued that Washington was also concerned to increase the medicinal or intoxicating potency of his marihuana plants (Brecher, 1972).

In 1775, hemp culture was introduced into Kentucky and large hemp plantations flourished in Mississippi, Georgia, California, South Carolina, and Nebraska until well into the 1800s.

For the majority, however, alcohol and tobacco were the popular American substances of habit until the Civil War era.

For the minor caffeine vice, residents in Confederate states returned to beverages made from cassina. Civil War blockades on southern ports curtailed imports of tea and coffee, so cassina drinks, abandoned since the Black Drought days of early settlers, became popular for the duration of the war.*

Opiates: The New Nineteenth Century Habit

One of the first exotic, non-indigenous substances to become a part of the nineteenth century culture was opium. Immigrant Chinese laborers building the trans-continental railroad migrated across the United States, bringing their opium smoking habit with them to the west. In the early to mid-1800s the practice was open and opium and its preparations were easily obtainable, subject to no controls or regulations.

Also, the use of opium became fashionable among some of the Litepati in Europe, and their various letters and books extolled its virtues. Thomas DeQuincey's Confessions of an Opium Eatl-ep, published in 1822, received wide notice, giving heretofore naive readers some second-hand taste of the pleasures of the drug.

... I do not readily believe that any man, having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium, will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.

I take it for granted That those eat now who never ate before, and those who always ate now eat the more.... What I contemplated in these Confessions was to emblazon the power of opium--not over bodily disease and pain, but over the grander and more shadowy world of dreams.

*Similarly, when coffee prices rose substantially during and after World War I, Congress and the United States Department of Agriculture persuaded Americans to adopt temporarily cassina teas and soft drinks as a substitute caffeine source.

...A man who is inebriated, or tending to inebriation, is, and feels that he is, in a condition which calls up into supremacy the merely human, too often the brutal part of his nature; but the opium-eater... feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount--that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity, and high over all the great light of majestic intellect (DeQuincey, 1822).

But DeQuincey's subsequent Miseries of Opium, detailing his own agonies of addiction, was generally ignored, as were the scattered medical warnings against habitual use of the substance.

Opium and Medical Practices

Use of opium was predominantly medicinal at this time, although in 1832 a physician wrote this summary of the drug's effects:

There is scarcely a disease in which opium may not, during some of its states, be brought to bear by the judicious physician with advantage. [But he cautioned against its indiscriminate use when other drugs are available:] when it is thus used, it seldom fails to lay the foundation for a long train of morbid symptoms, which sooner or later terminate in all wretchedness, which disease is capable of inflicting. Yet, this drug is in use every day, particularly among the better circles of society, and the softer sex (Levine, 1974).

There was at this time a vigorous patent medicine industry growing in the United States, with widespread advertising of preparations containing large quantities of opium. These medicines claimed to cure just about anything from nerves to marital problems, but what they amounted to were a source of opium, uncut and available to anyone with the nominal price of a bottle of the elixir.

Morphine: The Universal Cure

Morphine was first separated from opium by European chemists in the early 1800s, and was found soon after in the United States, where it began to take the place of opium in patent medicines.

Physicians believed the new opium derivative to be non-addicting, and hoped that it could actually cure opium addiction in patients. Doctors prescribed the new opiate often. Prevalent medical opinion held that the addiction process occurred in the individual's stomach, and that ingestion of an opiate was responsible for addiction.

The hypodermic needle and syringe were introduced in 1850--greeted as a boon by physicians who hoped to use morphine injections to kill pain and believed that the injection process itself would eliminate the addiction problem (Levine, 1974).

Morphine was used commonly as a pain killer during the Civil War. So large a number of soldiers became addicted as a result of the opiate given them for battle injuries that the post-war morphine addiction prevalent among veterans came to be known as Soldier's Disease.

Late in the 1800s, morphine was prescribed commonly as a substitute for alcohol addiction; the practice continued until late in the 1930s. Dr. J. R. Black, in a paper entitled Advantages of Substituting the Morphia Habit for the Incurably Alcoholic, published in the Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic in 1889, had the following praise for morphine in the alcoholic treatment regimen:

[Morphine] is less inimical to healthy life than alcohol... [It] calms in place of exciting the baser passions, and hence is less productive of acts of violence and crime; in short-the use of morphine in place of alcohol is but a choice of evils, and by far the lesser-On the score of economy the morphine habit is by far the better.

The regular whisky drinker can be made content in his craving for stimulation, at least for quite a long time, on two or three grains of morphine a day, divided into appropriate portions, and given at regular intervals. If purchased by the drach at fifty cents this will last him twenty days (Brecher, 1972).

Women: The Opiate Addicts

Throughout the late 1800s, the opiates (morphine and opium) continued to be distributed widely in patent medicines. There was also a widespread physicians' practice of prescribing opiates for menstrual and menopausal disorders. Too, there was extravagant advertising of the opiate patent medicines as able to relieve female troubles.

Women, it seemed, had become the prevalent class of opiate users. Prescription and patent medicines containing the substances were advertised and accepted without question. Also, this was a convenient, gentile drug for a dependent lady who would never be seen drinking in public.

The extent to which alcohol-drinking by women was frowned upon may also [in addition to opiate medicines] have contributed to the excess of women among opiate users. Husbands drank alcohol in the saloon; wives took opium at home (Brecher, 1972).

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