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Historical Analysis of Drug Use and Abuse in the United States of America during 1900–1950 Essay

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Updated: Jun 21st, 2021

Throughout the whole history of mankind existence, people have demonstrated propensity for a range of substances, the most addictive of which are — along with alcohol and tobacco — drugs.

The importance of drugs in certain cultures cannot be overestimated; for instance, the intoxicating haze of opium is part and parcel for the civilizations of the oriental countries. The two-hundred-year old history of the United States of America has witnessed several dramatic swings in the cultural attitude to drugs, from favorable acceptance on the one hand to passionate rejection on the other hand.

One of the most exciting periods of a cultural shift in relation to drugs occupies around fifty years: in the first half of the twentieth century, the general cultural trend in America’s attitude to drugs took a rapid turn towards legal limitation of drug use. Therefore drugs were no more viewed as substances used for purely medical purposes but as forbidden fruit that became more and more widespread among such social strata as criminals, assuming a new cultural perspective.

However striking one may find it, at the beginning of the twentieth century the percentage of the United States population addicted to drugs was not much lower than modern statistical data. According to Whitebread (1995), up to five percent of the nation experienced dependence on drugs, and there were two major reasons which called this situation into being.

On the one hand, the common medical practice of the whole preceding century made wide use of morphine as a pain killer in every possible surgery situation. Morphine was used both during operations and after them, thus condemning the patients to drug addiction even if it was the last thing they wanted.

On the other hand, the specific nature of the social stratum mostly involved into drug use also contributed to the growth of statistics: contrary to the present situation when the person most likely to be a drug user is a young male city dweller, preferably representing a minority group, at the turn of the twentieth century the most typical drug addicts were middle-aged white women living in the countryside.

The reason for such popularity of drugs among those women was the flourishing trade of various patent medicines that were claimed to be no less than universal panacea but in fact often consisted of morphine by almost fifty percent. Thus, the main peculiarity of the drug culture that had developed by the 1900s lays in the fact that the drug addicts of the time were not aware of their addiction which was therefore accidental. (Whitebread, 1995)

With the development of scientific and medical knowledge about the dangerous addictive nature and the devastating consequences of drugs on human body, the United States realized that something must be done to control drug usage and prevent more people from falling into the hopeless abyss of addiction.

Already in the last decades of the nineteenth century, there arose a wave of general concern for environment and a whole range of American cities and states started passing laws that banned certain kinds of adulterated food and mood-altering drugs (Musto, 1991).

The first federal triumph was celebrated by the prohibitionists when in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed; although the Act did not prohibit selling such addictive substances as cocaine, morphine and cannabis, it at least obliged all the manufacturers of patent medicines to properly label all the medicines containing opiates.

The efficiency of the Pure Food and Drug Act is highly prized by the researchers; Whitebread (1995) estimates this noncriminal law to be more successful in reducing the level of addiction than any other consequently adopted statute. The society became conscious of the drugs it was taking and possibly getting addicted to; statistics shows that public campaigns persuading people not to use patent drugs containing opiates yielded positive results and the opiate addiction had moderately declined by 1914 (Casey, 2009).

Together with preventing the more conscientious part of the nation from falling into the clutches of drug addiction, labeling the opiate-containing medicines evoked the morbid curiosity of easy pleasure seekers.

Moreover, cocaine, which had previously attracted mostly the intelligence who drew additional energy from it for intellectual tasks, started to associate with a new generation of users — the tough youth and criminal elements. Police reports formed a general public stereotype linking cocaine with the low-class black workers; that led to a new wave of racial prejudice (Morgan, 1981).

To make things worse, heroin that had been initially viewed by doctors as a cure from opiate addiction and was enthusiastically used in medicine of the 1910s was proved to be no less addictive and dangerous than the drugs it was substituting for. Shaping the negative popular opinion, mass media outlined the typical image of a contemporary ‘gang’ member as an unemployed young white male living in the suburbs of a large city and being heavily dependent on heroine (Morgan, 1981).

Thus, the society needed a new law that would come out against the asocial elements brought about by drug addiction which was now viewed as a social evil.

The way out was found in the 1914 Harrison Act, the first American law that criminalized any non-medical use of drugs and prescribed that “manufacturers, importers, pharmacists, and physicians prescribing narcotics should be licensed to do so, at a moderate fee” (Casey, 2009). Together with certain positive results, among the consequences of the Harrison Act was total misery and anguish of the poorer part of the population who used to purchase their dope not from official medics but just in the street.

At that time the American legislation chose not to permit any maintenance of addicts and only allowed prescription of drugs as a part of a cure (Morgan, 1981). Strict justice was administered to those who had become desperate criminals due to their drug addiction: according to Clark, “in 1923 seventy-five percent of women in federal penitentiaries were Harrison Act prisoners” (as cited in Casey, 2009).

But despite all the governmental efforts, new addictive substances came up to replace the prohibited ones. After the 1920 Volstead Act increasing the alcohol prices in the US, marijuana that had been introduced by Mexican immigrants appeared an attractive alternative and became a significant part of the popular black “hepster” jazz culture.

Gradually marijuana grew into such evil a scourge — combined with the Great Depression fear of unemployed criminals from lower class communities, mostly associated with Mexicans, — that another prohibition law was passed by the Congress, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Law (PBS Frontline, 2000).

Throughout the following decade, marijuana got an indeed terrific reputation, labeled “the killer drug” and “the assassin of youth”, and the American government lead a fierce war against the “addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death” (Whitebread, 1995). However, by the mid-twentieth century, the United States were still among the countries with the highest rates of marijuana addicts.

In first half of the twentieth century, the United States of America appeared a scene for dramatic changes in the social attitude to drugs. Initially taken as wonder-working medicines, drugs were studied in-depth and revealed their hazardous nature.

Popular opinion formulated a rigid negative stereotype against drugs and drug addicts; non-medical drug use started to be viewed as a crime and drug addicts were treated as outlaws. Though by the Second World War drugs were already considered a social ill (DEA Museum, 2007), there was still a long way to go to the modern attitude of maintenance and rehabilitation that helps former addicts return from their blurred mirage to a normal social life.

References

Casey, E. (2009). History of drug use and drug users in the United States. Web.

DEA Museum. (2007). Illegal drugs in America: A modern history. Web.

Morgan, H. W. (1981). Drugs in America: A social history, 1800-1980. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Musto, D. F. (1991). Opium, cocaine and marijuana in American history. Scientific American, 20-27. Web.

PBS Frontline. (2000). . Web.

Whitebread, C. (1995). . A speech to the California Judges Association 1995 annual conference. Web.

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