Study Guide

History of Drugs in America Introduction

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History of Drugs in America Introduction

These days, popular musicians, household-name athletes, and even powerful politicians, are using their uh, high ranks to argue for the legalization of marijuana.

And everywhere we turn, we're likely to hear people arguing about whether the gateway drug for some, and cure for others, should be legalized. In some places in the world, it’s totally okay to use cocaine, while in other places, even caffeine is illegal. Which drugs are totes legit and which ones should we outlaw?

The thing is, the debate isn't new, because drugs have been central to the American experience from the very beginning.

Christopher Columbus' 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. Newsflash: it still is.

A century later, tobacco rescued the first English colony in North America from the verge of collapse. Yes, we went there. 

See, the first five years of the Jamestown settlement—founded in Virginia in 1607—were disastrous: settlers died off and failed to develop any crops that could be sold at a price high enough to sustain the colony. The remaining live ones were on the brink of getting the heck out of there when John Rolfe rolled up. Pocahontas' husband planted a field of tobacco in 1612, and the crop sold in London a year later for a huge profit. Soon, Jamestown grew little else besides tobacco. 

And without the proceeds from the international drug trade in tobacco, the first sustained English settlement in North America would've failed, and the United States as we know it may never have come to exist.

Yes, we went there.

Since then, drugs have made a major impact on American history. Even as drugs, legal and otherwise, have contributed to the growth of the nation's economy, Americans have struggled to find policies that limit drugs' negative effects on society without generating negative side-effects of their own.

But just because drugs have always been part of the U.S., doesn't mean we think drugs are good, obvi. Because as long as there have been drugs, there has been a drug problem, too.

What is History of Drugs in America About and Why Should I Care?

Most drugs were totally legal in the 19th century.

And we're not just talking about legalized marijuana. We're talking opium and heroin, some of the most insanely addictive and powerful stuff out there. Yeah, you might as well widen your eyes now to save time, because you have a one-way ticket to Drugsville, U.S.A.

So, let's be real: drugs are a major problem in American life. But that's not a new problem.

Since the very first day Columbus landed in the New World, when the Taino Indians presented him with a gift of tobacco, which would go on to become—for better or worse, but mostly worse—one of the most important drugs in our history.

As we mentioned, drugs have existed since the beginning, so have drug problems, and so have attempts to solve those drug problems. As we face our own drug problems, we can learn something from those past attempts.

  • How did it turn out when an English king tried to convince his people to stop smoking by writing a tract called A Counterblaste to Tobacco?
  • How did it turn out when another English king tried to ban coffeehouses?
    How did it turn out when the United States passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting all drinking of alcohol?

Let's just say the public was hesitant to put down their lighters, their mugs, and their hard stuff. Whether our history can help you to help us develop a better set of policies to deal with America's drug problem in the future, is up to you.

But this topic sure sounds addicting to us, so let's get into it before we go into withdrawal.

History of Drugs in America Resources


David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (2001)
Well-written and wide-ranging, Forces of Habit spans 500 years of global history to explain what Courtwright calls a "psychoactive revolution" that has made drugs pervasive in modern society. According to Courtwright, widespread drug use (both legal and illegal) must be understood not only as a cultural phenomenon, but also as an integral part of the economic history of modern capitalism.

David F. Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (1999)
Musto's American Disease is the best single history of America's "War on Drugs."

Iain Gately, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (2001)
You don't need to share Gately's evident affection for tobacco to enjoy Tobacco. This global history of one of the world's most widely used drugs is packed full of fascinating trivia.

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World (1999)
Pendergast does for coffee what Gately does for tobacco. Readers may be surprised to learn how important coffee has been in shaping the cultures, societies, and economies of the modern world.

Dominic Streatfield, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography (2003)
Streatfield's "unauthorized biography" framework may be a bit cheesy, but Cocaine remains a useful global history of one of the most controversial drugs of recent decades.


Heroin in a Bottle
In the late-19th century, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer sold heroin in a bottle as an over-the-counter cough suppressant.

Arbuckle's Ariosa
After the Civil War, a Pittsburgh grocer began selling Arbuckle's Ariosa Coffee, the country's first popular prepackaged coffee brand. The company's colorful label became a common sight from Manhattan cafes to frontier chuck wagons.

Columbus' Tobacco
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492, his very first encounter with the natives ended with an exchange of gifts including tobacco—a drug no European had ever seen before.

Cops 1, Bootleggers 0
Florida policemen destroy confiscated, illegal liquor during Prohibition, 1925.

Reefer Madness
Promotional poster for the legendary 1936 anti-marijuana film, Reefer Madness.

Coffee During Wartime
Coffee helped Union soldiers win the Civil War.

Movies & TV

The Wire (2002–2008)
The Wire, one of the best drama series on American television in recent years, depicts the gritty conditions of life in urban Baltimore; the entire first season focuses on the city's violent drug trade. True must-see TV.

American Gangster (2007)
Director Ridley Scott's take on the classic gangster drama pits entrepreneurial drug kingpin Frank Lucas against honest cop Richie Roberts in a timeless morality play set in the era of the Vietnam War. Loosely based on a true story, the film shows how Frank Lucas rose to the top of the New York narcotics game by importing pure heroin directly from Southeast Asia, using U.S. military planes for transport.

Miller's Crossing (1990)
An oft-overlooked gem from the writing/producing/directing team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Miller's Crossing is a more recent classic of the film noir genre. The picture's setting—a violent urban gang war in the 1920s—aptly captures the criminal chaos let loose by Prohibition, which turned alcohol into an incredibly lucrative black-market commodity.

Scarface (1983)
Scarface, a sprawling and violent gangster epic, was released in 1983 to mixed reviews and mediocre box-office results. In the years since, however, the film has become a true cult classic, as modern-day gangstas and wannabes turned Pacino's character Tony Montana into a bloodthirsty folk hero for the hip-hop age. "Say hello to my little friend!"


PBS's Drug Wars
PBS's Frontline produced a four-hour documentary called "Drug Wars," an in-depth investigation of the social, political, and international effects of the War on Drugs over the past several decades. The accompanying website includes transcripts of the documentary, along with a great deal of extra content, including access to primary sources.

War on Drugs Central
The Office of National Drug Control Policy is ground zero in the federal government's efforts to win the War on Drugs. The ONDCP's website is the best starting point for an understanding of contemporary government policy on drugs.

History of Coffee
National Geographic offers an online exhibit on the history of coffee. The section on "Coffee Legends" is particularly interesting; check out the Ethiopian legend about how a poor goatherd discovered coffee's magical properties after he noticed his goats "dancing from one coffee shrub to another."

Tobacco and Globalization
The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization provides a nice, brief overview of tobacco's place in the history of the modern world.

Video & Audio

Declaring War on Drugs
Richard Nixon's speech announcing the War on Drugs.

Reefer Madness Trailer
Here's the trailer for Reefer Madness, the infamously over-the-top 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film, in which use of the drug leads directly to madness, rape, murder, and suicide.

Any Questions?
"This is your brain on drugs," a famous televised Public Service Announcement from the 1980s.

Parents Who Use Drugs Have Kids Who Use Drugs
"I learned it by watching you," another memorable Public Service Announcement from the 1980s.

Historical Documents

Drug Prisoners
2003 Human Rights Watch report on "Incarcerated America."

Royal Anti-Smoking Plea
King James I's A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604).

Just Say No
Ronald and Nancy Reagan speech on "The Campaign Against Drug Abuse" (1986).

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