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A Timeline Of When And Why Every Drug In The United States Became Illegal

Picture this: you're in a cherry red 1971 Chevrolet Impala, gunning it across the desert along I-15 from Las Vegas. You can't be entirely sure, but it appears there are bats headed your way in a great swarm, soon to be overtaking the "great red shark" you're driving and perhaps whisking you away to another dimension entirely. You've taken cocaine to stay awake for the drive, but that was only because you haven't slept for the last 72 hours, instead bouncing between the chaotic highs of molly and mescaline. 

The guy sitting beside you? A drifter from somewhere in the Florida panhandle, still feeling the effects of the three "powder bombs" of bath salts he ingested last night. For a brief moment, you wonder if he's just a figment of your imagination - or if you're a figment of his. 

But there's no time to dote on these things because you've got a trunk full of nearly every illegal drug in America. This car isn't just four wheels and an engine - it's a vessel from another world, ferrying nightmares through space and time like Charon taking the dead across the river Styx.

To answer your first question - yes, you are freaking out right now.

That's because there is a long list of illegal drugs circulating throughout the United States, all with varying degrees of effects. And in order to keep those highs in check (and those bats out of your hair), the government made sure to criminalize each and every one. When did America make drugs illegal? Many federally outlawed drugs were actually once perfectly legal to purchase and use in America.

If you want to learn when and why possessing substances like cocaine and heroin could lead to substantial jail time, browse this timeline of illegal drugs in America. Click through below to free your mind, stimulate your senses, and hopefully not leave too addicted to anything. 

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  • 1914 - Cocaine
    Photo: Psychonaught / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    Naturally derived from the coca plant, cocaine is manufactured primarily in South America and was once 100% legal in the United States. Not only was the drug used in various medicines until the early 20th century, it was also one of the key ingredients of the original Coca-Cola formula up until 1903. 

    Like many drugs in the United States, racial tensions contributed to a shift in public opinion regarding cocaine use. When Coca Cola became bottled and mass produced, it gained increasing popularity in African American communities. In the early 1900s, headlines began cropping up about African American men abusing cocaine and other narcotics. Slavery had only been illegal for a little over 40 years in the United States, and such articles played on racially-based fears of white Americans, often insisting Black men became increasingly violent and unruly under the influence of cocaine. 

    Public fear and pressure eventually led to the Harrison Tax Act of 1914 that outlawed cocaine. 


  • 1920 - Alcohol
    Photo: Chris huh / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    1920 - Alcohol

    The most popular (and legal) drug on this list, alcohol's stint as a banned substance lasted thirteen years. Deemed a depressant for its ability to cause stupor, unconsciousness, and intoxication, alcohol is legal across all fifty United States - but that wasn't always the case. 

    Seeking moral victories, prohibition supporters won their battle against the "evils" of alcohol in 1919, when Congress passed the Volstead Act, effectively banning its sale country-wide via the Eighteenth Amendment. The act went into effect in 1920. Although the United States went dry, that didn't stop alcohol production entirely, as several underground systems sprung up in the form of rum-running, backyard distilleries, and speakeasy's around the country. 

    For something that dates back to 7000 BCE, American citizens believed the ban on alcohol to be more than a little unfair. Finally sobering up to their senses, the United States declared alcohol legal again in 1933 after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. 

  • 1924 - Heroin
    Photo: Psychonaught / WikiMedi Commons / Public Domain

    Snorted, smoked, or inhaled, heroin has become one of the most dangerous recreational drugs in the United States. Searching for an alternative to highly addictive painkillers like morphine, English researcher C.R. Wright first synthesized heroin in 1874. However, after noticing disturbing side effects like vomiting and anxiety, he promptly discontinued research. The pharmaceutical company Bayer (yes, that Bayer) built upon Wright's research 20 years later in 1895. Bayer dubbed the drug they created heroin and began selling it as over-the-counter medication. Seen as a miracle drug, heroin was used for everything from headaches to premenstrual syndrome. It was even marketed to children.

    That is, until 1924, when Congress banned its sale, manufacture, and importation, classifying it as a Schedule I substance. This was due to the drug having one of the highest addiction rates among its users and raising crime rates across the country. 

  • 1965 - PCP
    Photo: Drug Enforcement Administration / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    1965 - PCP

    Also known as "angel dust", PCP (phencyclidine) is known for its mind-bending hallucinogenic effects: users have described literally floating on air, an impossible level of euphoria, and superhuman strength. Like many illegal drugs, PCP was originally created for medical purposes. It was used as an intravenous anesthetic in the 1950s. Due to its intense effects, the drug became extremely popular for recreational use in the '60s and '70s

    The problem is, along with a one-of-a-kind trip, the drug has severe side effects including coma, mania, delirium, and increased risk of suicide. Because of these, the drug was outlawed for human use by the US government in 1965. PCP continued to be used as a veterinary anesthetic after this ban, but this led to concerns about the drug being easy to obtain illicitly. By 1978, the drug had all but disappeared from vet clinics as well. 

  • 1968 - LSD
    Photo: Psychonaught / WikiMedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most iconic recreational drugs of the 1960s and 1970s, LSD (or lysergic acid diethylamide), was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. After accidentally ingesting LSD in 1943, Hofmann discovered its hallucinogenic effects.  

    Since its creation, LSD has a long and fascinating history in the United States. It was used during the CIA's covert MK-Ultra experiments conducted throughout the '50s and '60s. Researchers hypothesized LSD could be used as a psychological weapon during the Cold War and used both volunteers and unwitting subjects for experimentation.  

    Although the drug was heavily used by several popular figures, it was eventually declared illegal in 1968 due to its extreme hallucinogenic effects, including impaired depth and time perception and distorted views of objects, colors, and sounds. 

  • 1970 - Opium

    Derived from the poppy plant, opium naturally produces pain-killing alkaloids, which are a key element of morphine, heroin, codeine, and countless other drugs. Specifically, it tricks the brain into believing it is naturally releasing endorphins, which generate calmness in the user. 

    Laws regarding bans or taxes on opium were initially left up to states and cities. In 1970, the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 defined it as a Schedule II drug. This effectively made the drug illegal throughout the United States.