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The American Drugs Of Choice In Every Decade Of The 20th Century

The history of drug abuse in America is often painted with broad, uncontextualized strokes. Drugs have shaped history since ancient times, and the United States is no exception. The trendiest drugs of each decade were sometimes responses to political movements, such as the use of cannabis and LSD during the counterculture movement of the ‘60s. They were lauded by the scientific community, like when companies put cocaine in nearly every product during the 1910s. More often than not, however, drugs were political weapons, used to racially stereotype people of color and minorities as drug-obsessed, violent criminals. 

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 set the stage for future legislation of narcotics and controlled substances, forcing companies to state whether their products were addictive or dangerous. Throughout the 20th century, more and more restrictive drug policies were put into place, often under the intention or guise of public health. In 1971, President Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs, which further demonized minorities and effectively shamed people struggling with addiction issues.

Despite all of the laws and punitive measures in place, Americans have still found ways to use recreational drugs. The popularity of different substances has ebbed and flowed, from the club drug-fueled dance clubs of the '90s to the current opioid crisis. 

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  • Chinatown Opium Dens Ruled The Early 1900s
    Photo: Louis Philippe Lessard / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Chinatown Opium Dens Ruled The Early 1900s

    While many may stereotypically associate opium with dens run by Chinese Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, the drug was already in circulation in tonics and elixirs starting in the early 19th century. As early as the 1600s, opium was considered an ordinary medicine in America, and even President Thomas Jefferson used it to help his chronic diarrhea.

    The drug gained its notoriety and popularity in the early 1900s. In both New York City and San Francisco, Chinese opium dens became must-visit lounges. Although racist stereotypes cast the Chinese Americans as "villains" laying around all day doing drugs, the core customer base for the poppy-derived drug was actually white women. Tabloid publications run by William Randolph Hearst helped shape the false narrative of "white slavery," telling tales of white women being seduced into opium addiction by depraved Chinese men.

    By 1904, it was considered "hip" to stop in for a smoke. Opium smoking is possibly even where the word "hip" came from in the first place:

    The word "hip"... may have derived from the classic, age-old, pelvic-centered, side-lying opium-smoking position, and may have been used originally as a sign of mutual recognition and reference by those who were in the know about the big sweet smoke.

    In 1906, Pure Food and Drug Act was introduced under President Teddy Roosevelt. This act required any "dangerous" or "addictive" drugs be labeled as such. In 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act – the United State's first foray into the world of drug prohibition – banned the drug from recreational use. Some believe this was an act truly designed to curb drug abuse, while others suspect the legislation had anti-Chinese intentions.

  • In the early 1900s, cocaine was in just about everything. Soda, feminine products, cigarettes, wine, and even pain relievers contained the now-illicit drug. In an 1884 issue of The New York Times, Dr. William Oliver Moore called the coca leaf-derivative "the most tonic plant of the vegetable world."

    Even though cocaine was primarily used for remedial reasons, the medical community noticed it was being used recreationally as well. Cases of addiction and noted mental health damage quickly became associated with the substance, and many physicians, like Sigmund Freud, who originally advocated its use, changed their stance.

    In order to tarnish the reputation of a drug once lauded as a miracle, newspapers and medical journals associated the substance with crimes and minorities. In 1914, The New York Times ran an article written by Dr. Edward Huntington Williams titled, "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are A New Southern Menace." The article made wild and uncorroborated statements about Black people's cocaine use, saying it made them commit atrocious crimes. It was one of many pieces written on the topic. In some instances, suspected use of cocaine by a Black person was considered sound basis for lynching.

    This hysteria helped Congress pass new legislation banning cocaine. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The new law didn't specifically outlaw the use of cocaine, but it did make non-medical use of both cocaine and opium illegal. Addicts itching for a fix promptly turned to underground markets, and the foundation for America's War on Drugs was set.

  • During Prohibition In The '20s, Moonshine Became The Drug Of Choice
    Photo: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During Prohibition In The '20s, Moonshine Became The Drug Of Choice

    On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment was signed into effect. The amendment did not outlaw the consumption of alcohol, but it did make selling, manufacturing, and transporting it illegal. Still, as the adage goes, you always want what you can't have, and people quickly found ways to make, distribute, and consume alcohol in public places. Speakeasies and bootlegging rings popped up faster than the Prohibition Bureau could squash them.

    People found very creative ways to get around the laws. For many, that meant either smuggling their booze across an international border or distilling their own, like moonshine. It was called "moonshine" because it was distilled in secret – by the light of the moon, so to speak. The Prohibition years, including the entire 1920s, saw Americans treating alcohol as an illicit drug, hiding it in secret flasks, and having drinks in speakeasies. NASCAR has its roots in illegal moonshine runs, as bootleggers would use stock cars that were secretly juiced up to transport the goods.

    On the surface, Prohibition was passed because officials were alarmed at the drinking habits of Americans. Historians like Lisa McGirr, however, remind us of an integral aspect of Prohibition: xenophobia. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a resurgence in the advent of Prohibition, and the hate group was heavily involved with the enforcement of the law: "This issue was used instrumentally as a mandate to target those groups they already saw as enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics, and African Americans." 

  • In The 1930s, "Reefer Madness" Took Hold
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Narcotics / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In The 1930s, "Reefer Madness" Took Hold

    Prior to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, hemp was primarily used in the United States to make rope, sails, and clothing. After the revolution, Mexican immigrants made their way to the US and introduced Americans to the recreational use of cannabis.

    When the Great Depression hit, many legislators were extremely eager to pin at least some of the blame on the Mexican immigrants and their "dangerous new drug." Cannabis usage became clouded by racism, prejudice, and fear. The term "marijuana" was coined during this time because government factions wanted to emphasize the plant's "Mexican-ness." Anti-cannabis groups funded research that linked the use of cannabis with deviant behaviors, especially those committed by individuals considered "racially inferior."

    In spite of extensive government research and propaganda, usage continued to rise, and various laws and taxes were put in place to curb cannabis smokers.

  • The '40s Featured Seemingly Innocent Drugs Like Caffeine And Nicotine
    Photo: John Vachon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The '40s Featured Seemingly Innocent Drugs Like Caffeine And Nicotine

    Cigarettes began to gain popularity in the 1930s, and by the '40s, many Americans were happily smoking away. They were addicted to the nicotine, but also felt no need to quit because of all the cheerful, reassuring advertisements they saw for cigarettes. The 1940s fell squarely in the middle of the era where doctors frequently appeared in advertisements for cigarettes, complete with slogans that would horrify medical professionals today: "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette." 

    However, in the years after World War II doctors finally began connecting the dots between cigarettes and deadly diseases like lung cancer. It was a process that lasted well into the 1990s.

    The other drug of choice also came in an innocuous form: caffeine. In the United States, coffee was rationed during WWII (1942-1943), as caffeine (along with amphetamines) was prioritized for soldiers overseas. 

  • The 1950s were fairly uneventful years when it comes to wild and crazy drug trends, but cannabis made a bit of a comeback – especially in New York City. In the summer of 1951, there were so many cannabis plants growing throughout the borough of Brooklyn that city sanitation officials had a hard time clearing it all out.

    It grew semi-wild in community lots and backyards, and officials sent a notice out to all residents: "If you spot these leaves in your backyard, growing in a tall, erect stalk, you have a budding marijuana crop on tap and the Sanitation Department would like to know about it."

    By the end of the summer that year, they had disposed of 41,000 pounds of cannabis.

    Although many Americans had a more relaxed attitude toward the drug at that point, Congress still saw it as a threat to public safety. In 1951, under the guidance of Harry Anslinger,  they passed the Boggs Act. The law established mandatory minimum prison sentences for both users and dealers of illegal drugs, including cannabis.

    The assumption was that drug addiction was potentially incurable, and as such addicts should be removed from society. The law also made it easier for law enforcement agencies to arrest people of color for these new offenses.