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History of Drugs in America Summary & Analysis

Analytic Overview

Drugs have been central to the American experience, from the very beginning.

Christopher Columbus's very first encounter with the natives of the "New World" ended with an exchange of gifts, in which the Indians graciously presented their European visitors with a supply of a powerful and popular local drug—tobacco. Columbus had no idea what he was supposed to do with the unfamiliar dried leaves, and ended up chucking them overboard. But his men soon learned from the Indians the joys of smoking, and carried the habit back with them to Europe. Soon Europe became a continent of nicotine addicts (which it remains to this day).

A century later, tobacco rescued the first English colony in North America from the verge of collapse. The first five years of the Jamestown settlement (founded in Virginia in 1607) were disastrous: settlers died off at a frightful rate and failed to develop any crops that could be sold at a price high enough to sustain the colony. Abandonment of the settlement loomed as a very real possibility. Then, in 1612, John Rolfe—best remembered today as the husband of Pocahontas—planted a field of tobacco. The crop sold in London a year later for a huge profit. Soon Jamestown grew little else besides tobacco; without the proceeds from the international drug trade in tobacco, the first sustained English settlement in North America would have failed, and the United States as we know it may never have come to exist.

The Big Three

Tobacco was and is one of the "Big Three"—the three most important drugs in American history. The other two are alcohol and caffeine.

Tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine? If that threesome seems shocking, it's because those three drugs are so ubiquitous in our society that we often don't even think of them as drugs at all. They are so widely used, and so accepted in our society, that users of the "Big Three" usually don't face the social stigma (to say nothing of the criminal sanctions) suffered by users of illegal drugs like marijuana or cocaine. Habitual users of the "Big Three" drugs almost certainly don't think of themselves as drug addicts.

But in truth the differences between the "Big Three" legal drugs and their illegal cousins are almost as much a matter of culture and history as of the intrinsic qualities of the drugs themselves. Caffeine is more addictive than marijuana. Alcohol is more intoxicating than cocaine. Tobacco is more damaging to users' health than ecstasy. Like harder drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are all taken recreationally, for non-medicinal purposes, because they make their users feel better (or, for addicts, at least help them stave off the withdrawal symptoms that otherwise make them feel much worse).

The Timeless Temptation of Drugs

The most basic explanation for the wide popularity of drugs throughout American history of both the "Big Three" legal drugs and the multitude of less prevalent illegal drugs—is that people simply like drugs. Since human beings first discovered, in ancient times, that they could alter their consciousnesses via chemical means, they've had a hard time stopping themselves from doing it. Drugs, by messing around with the internal chemistry of the brain, can temporarily make sad people feel happy; sick people feel well; tired people feel spry; weak people feel strong; shy people feel brave; ugly people feel sexy. Drugs don't really solve any of those problems, of course, but drugs can mask them for as long as the high lasts. And that's enough to keep millions of Americans coming back for more. And that truth didn't begin with the meth epidemic of the early twenty-first century, or the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s, or the pot-smoking counterculture of the 1960s. That truth reaches back to the very beginning of American history, to the Jamestown colony, where after a full decade of English settlement Captain John Smith found "only five or six houses, the Church downe, the palisades broken, the Bridge in pieces, the Well of fresh water spoiled," but "the market-place, the streets, and all other spare places planted with Tobacco."

America's Endless Drug Problem

To acknowledge that drugs have always been with us is not, in any way, to suggest that drugs are a good thing, or a benign presence in American society. Quite the contrary. Drugs have always had serious consequences for the individuals who use them and for society as a whole. For as long as there have been drugs in America, there has been a drug problem.

And for as long as there's been a drug problem, there has been controversy over how best to deal with it. Is drug abuse a social problem, or an individual moral failing? Is drug addiction a medical problem demanding treatment, or a criminal problem demanding punishment? How far can society go to prevent individuals from harming themselves with drugs without violating the individual freedoms protected by the Constitution? What happens when laws passed to prohibit drug use end up causing as many problems as the drugs themselves?

The history of drugs in America is the history of Americans' struggle to answer these questions.

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