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Mainstream Drug Use in America:

"What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been..."

pre-1980's

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Analysis of Drug Use in Modern America Drug Use in America, pre-1980's

The beginning of America's experimentation with drug use dates back to the introduction of opiates in the 1800's, manipulated in its various forms for use as both medications and for pleasure-seeking individuals. This initial drug epidemic spread throughout the nation and thus sparked the institution of anti-drug laws to combat the problem and decrease both drug addiction and the harmful side effects of such substances. America's first "epidemic," however, held little urgency and far fewer followers when compared to the drug scene that would eventually explode across America, starting in the late 1950's and escalating throughout the 1960’s and beyond. The emergent 1960’s counterculture, a group consisting of mostly young people bound characterized by dissatisfaction with the political climate of the deacde and searching for alternatives to the violence and hatred surrounding pivotal issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, praised the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as marijuana and LSD. The popularity of these reality-altering drugs spread extremely quickly, as people began to view them as means for significant social change because of their believed capability to "open the doors of the mind," and as popular and idolized musicians endlessly extolled their virtues through song. Hallucinogens soon led to experimentation with harder drugs, specifically heroin, cocaine, and speed, which also increased in popularity throughout the end of the 1960's. 

As more individuals experimented with drug use and its presence in American culture and society increased, drug use, particularly concerning hallucinogenics and cocaine, became seen by many from a somewhat relaxed standpoint as a widespread recreational activity enjoyed by many with few long-term and fatal risks. This free-spirited attitude of the 1960’s counterculture carried over into the start of the 1970's with individuals still heavily using marijuana, but the emphasis also shifted from the harder hallucinogens of the 1960's to a new drug: cocaine. Individuals then turned their attention to this high-energy producing and glamorous drug that represented the perfect companion to the disco culture that exploded in the mid-1970’s.  Cocaine use spread extremely quickly throughout America in the end of the 1970's, gaining popularity not just in discos nationawide, but among various classes and types of individuals hoping to attain its pleasurable and energy-producing effects. The popularity of cocaine can be partially attributed to widespread ignorance of its harmful side effects, which in turn established it as somewhat of a socially accpted drug. This common attitude was demonstrated by even high U.S. government officials, specifically President Carter’s drug advisor and Special Assistant for Health Issues, Dr. Peter Bourne, who stated in 1979 that, "Cocaine...is probably the most benign of illicit drugs currently in widespread use. At least as strong a case could be made for legalizing it as for legalizing marijuana. Short-acting....not physically addicting, and acutely pleasurable, cocaine has found increasing favor at all socioeconomic levels (DEA,www.usdoj.gov/dea/)."  Partially because of widespread beliefs like Dr. Bourne’s, during the mid to end of the 1970’s drug enforcement officials concentrated their efforts on what they considered more dangerous drugs, including heroin, methamphetamines, and barbiturates.  In combination with the lax attitudes surrounding cocaine use, the glamour, high energy, and party-oriented lifestyles also associated with it catapulted the drug to its position as “the status symbol of the decade (Torgoff 321).” Despite Nixon’s 1969 declaration of a nation-wide “War on Drugs,” drug use quickly escalated until 1979 when it hit its peak in the US, with 26 million Americans admitting to regular drug use and about 22 million Americans reporting experimentation with cocaine (DEA,www.usdoj.gov/dea/). To read about how the evolution of drug use throughout history created the climate of the 1980's American drug culture.