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

Updated January 28, 2020 30.8k views12 items

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. 

  • 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.

  • Photo: Derek Redmond/Paul Campbell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Drugs were a huge part of the cultural evolution of the 1960s. It was a tumultuous decade, with younger generations taking active roles in world events like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. For those who were fed up with the political tension, drugs were seen as a form of rebellion, and checking out via LSD and cannabis was a widely available option.

    People often used drugs to open their minds, and users claimed they were getting in touch with their inner consciousness to find peace and healing. One user even said that LSD "was the fundamental engine of the 1960s."

    However, the United States government didn't see things the same way. They viewed the drug use as a threat to public health and in 1962, they put a stop to all research that was being conducted looking into the medical safety of illicit drugs.  

    Oddly enough, after these new FDA regulations passed, LSD became more widely accessible in black markets. At the time, the formula for LSD was available at the United States Patent Office for 50 cents, and the ingredients were easily purchased from chemists and drugstores. Clandestine LSD labs popped up all over the country, and in 1968, the government seized over 40 million doses of the hallucinogenic.

  • Photo: Marc St. Gil / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The '70s Were Full Of Counterculturists Smoking "Hippie Weed"

    Cannabis was the "forbidden fruit" of the 1970s. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed in the United States, and it classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug with "no accepted medical use."

    For some people, it was outrage at the government's ban of the plant that drove their smoking habit. Cannabis was smoked widely, from professionals to young teens; one advertising copywriter recalls using it with his coworkers to stimulate their creativity.

    Despite the federal ban on the drug, several states became interested in the medical effects of the plant during this decade. States like Oregon, Alaska, and Maine decriminalized cannabis during the '70s.

    Many people who smoked in the '70s claimed "weed" back then was different – and it actually was. The level of THC (the hallucinogenic component) in cannabis at the time was around 1%, whereas today a good strain of cannabis can have around 18% THC. Many counterculturists were smoking "hippie weed," which was illegally imported from Columbia. The product was affected by oxidation as it traveled to the US, which lowered its potency.