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Drug Use and Abuse in America: Historical Analysis Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020


Drug abuse has become a major challenge to the United States of America for a very long period of time now. During the 19th century, drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and heroin were discovered and this marked the beginning of incidences of drug abuse and rampant addiction (Abadinsky, 2008). At the beginning of the 20th century, America introduced stringent rules restricting the use of illegal drugs.

This action was taken due to the potential threat posed by uncontrolled drug abuse. Owing to the scope that drug dealing had taken, both domestic and international laws were enforced to regulate the growing of crops such as coca and opium (Crutchfield, 2000). These laws succeeded significantly in minimizing the impact of drug abuse. The paper discusses the history of drug abuse in the US from the year 1950 to 2000.

The Boggs Act of 1951 and the Media

By the end of the World War II (WWII), drug abuse in America had decreased significantly until it was no longer a major social issue (Crutchfield, 2000). However, a few years later the problem reemerged and hence the need for immediate action. In 1951, the Boggs Act was introduced as a one of the most important drug law.

It reflected the basis for effective drug legislation in America where the media perceived and reported an increase in drug abuse. This would imply that any such information resulted in the introduction of a new law to fight criminals. The new penalties would be harsher than the preceding ones and this was set for every single category of offense.

During this period, the perception of increased drug abuse was drawn from the content of the media reports like in movies and television. For instance, it would be noted that there was an increased use of drugs among high school students. Subsequently, the Boggs Act of 1951 would allow the quadrupling of the penalties associated with every single offense category (Shahidullah, 2008).

In particular, the application of the Boggs Act was more inclined to justifying and ensuring the prohibition of marijuana (Abadinsky, 2008). Law enforcers, while giving the rationale for the prohibition claimed that, despite being highly addictive, the drug caused insanity, increased criminality, and even death to the user. This claim, however, was quickly refuted by a renowned medical doctor who was a witness in case and he said that marijuana could produce passivity in the users.

Another witness added a twist to the whole case when he said that marijuana was the major cause of heroin addiction. This, for the Boggs Act of 1951, was a sufficient rationale for the prohibition of marijuana and other related drugs (Staley, 1992). It was the perceived use of drugs by the ‘foreign enemies’ to subvert the American youth that inspired the tightening of drug legislations.

1956 and the Daniel Act

The second drug law within this period was introduced in 1956 and was known as the Daniel Act which was named for the then Texas senator, Price Daniel (Shahidullah, 2008). The new law was similar to the Boggs Act of 1951 in that it employed the same formula of using perceived increase in drug use in the country. As a result, it provided the rationale for the introduction of a new criminal law. In 1956, there were reports of organized crime in the US.

This was through televised Senate hearings presented by the then senator of Tennessee, Estes Kefauver (Crutchfield, 2000). This, at the end of the day, created the perception that there was increased drug use in America. That the organized criminals were in the country and were making a lot of money through drug deals. Consequently, the Daniel Act was enacted and came with harsher penalties than those of the Boggs Act in every of the offense categories.

The two acts, the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Daniel Act of 1956 formed the basis upon which states formulated and passed their own versions of acts. Between 1958 and 1969, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Virginia itself had passed laws with the heavy penalties for crimes involving the possession of marijuana, or any other prohibited drug (Staley, 1992).This was occasioned by the fact that during the 1960s, drugs such as marijuana, psychedelics, and amphetamines were the most abused drugs.

In fact, the mandatory least sentence that one would serve was twenty years and the accused was not eligible for parole. This could not be compared with the sentence served by first degree murder in the state of Virginia which had mandatory sentence set at five years less while rape case attracted a mandatory least sentence of ten years. On the other hand, one convicted of selling marijuana would serve a mandatory least sentence of forty years (Crutchfield, 2000).

The 1969 Dangerous Substances Act

In 1969, another drug law known as the Dangerous Substances Act was introduced and was quite unique in that it did not apply the formula used by the preceding drug legislations. Just like in the previous years, there was perceived increase in drug abuse but the penalties were lowered (Staley, 1992).

It was also during this time that the “taxing” mythology was dismissed. Apart from nicotine and alcohol, the 1969 Dangerous Substances Act targeted the users and sellers of all other drugs. The 1969 act classified all drugs except nicotine and alcohol under the following: the drug’s medical importance and the drug’s potential for misuse (Crutchfield, 2000).

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

The 1970s also continued to witness the explosion of the drug culture and the US government responded by developing new drug laws and specialized agencies to deal with the continuing problem. In 1973, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was established to ensure that the federal laws on drugs were fully enforced (Shahidullah, 2008).

It was during this period that cocaine reentered the market. In the 1980s, there was reemergence in the use of crack which proved very addictive and its users were characterized by excessive violence. This period was also filled with perceptions of increased use of drugs. Consequently, the government declared war not only on the drugs with high potential for abuse but also on the drug users and dealers (Abadinsky, 2008).

Any Progress?

The fight against drugs and drug users continued to the 1990s albeit with little success. One drug law after another with revised penalties was introduced. By 1990, about a third of the minority population of the City of Baltimore alone who were male aged between 20 and 29 were being supervised by the court for drug cases (National Urban League, 1989). This proportion is significantly high in spite of the strict drug laws which had been in place for sometime then.

The Year 2000

Despite the declaration of war against drugs and its users, there has been evidently minimal success in the endeavor. After about half a century, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s toughest challenge is the dynamism exhibited by organized crime (Shahidullah, 2008).

In the earlier years, the criminals conducted drug deals on American soil, however, the year 2000 witnessed the emergence of highly networked and powerful drug traffickers with headquarters spread strategically in foreign countries and controlling drug business in the U.S. Therefore, it is evident that the fight against drug abuse in America has a long and complicated history and new approaches of combating the ever growing drug problems need to be identified if the war is to be won in the modern information age.


Abadinsky, H. (2008). Drug use and abuse: a comprehensive introduction (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Cengage, Thomson-Wadsworth

Crutchfield, R. D. (2000). Readings in Crime: drug use and abuse (2nd ed). Pine Forge Press

National Urban League (1989). The state of Black America by 1989. The State of Black America, 13. Transaction Plc.

Shahidullah, S. M. (2008). Crime legislations in America: laws, institutions, and programs. University Press of America

Staley, S. (1992). Understanding drug policy and the decline of America cities. Transaction Plc.

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