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Evolution of illicit drugs in U.S.

Evolution of illicit drugs in U.S.

12-11 | CDAH Team

Experts agree that illicit drug abuse in the United States can cause serious physical and mental consequences in the user, but this hasn’t always been the case. Not every illicit drug has been viewed as harmful throughout the years. In fact, many were once used legally before their negative effects became apparent. As public opinions have changed, the drug landscape of America has changed with it, according to a report, titled “A Social History of America’s Most Popular Drugs”, published in


Amphetamine was created back in 1887 and gained popularity by the 1920s. Originally it was used for raising blood pressure, enlarging nasal passages and stimulating the central nervous system. Amphetamine was also used during World War II to help soldiers fight fatigue, improve their mood and endurance and even treat depression after the war ended.

By the 1930s, people had begun to abuse it, first through over-the-counter inhalers and later by injection starting in the 1950s and 60s. In the modern day, amphetamine is used as part of stimulant medications, normally those used for the treatment of ADHD. Some individuals end up abusing these medications and turn to harder drugs later on, such as methamphetamine.


Cocaine, derived from the coca plant, was recognized by the medical community in the 1880s. Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt prescribed it to soldiers in 1883 to help reduce fatigue. In 1886, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, Dr. William Alexander Hammond, approved of the use of cocaine at a meeting of the New York Neurological Society.

Knowing this, it is less than surprising that by 1902 there were around 200,000 cocaine addicts in the U.S. alone. By 1914, the drug was outlawed and its use declined from the 1940s-60s. However, it regained popularity in the 1970s as it was marketed as “harmless” until crack cocaine emerged in 1985. By 1998, there were an estimated 3.8 million Americans using cocaine.

Opium and heroin

Opium was popular during the 1800s in the U.S., especially among women, who were given elixirs and tonics that contained opium for issues such as nerves and other “female problems.” When the practice of opium smoking grew through the 1850s and 60s, opium dens began to emerge and were common by the turn of the century. During the mid-19th century, the hypodermic syringe was invented and with it the use of injectable morphine. Morphine was used during the American Civil War for pain relief but ended up creating the first wave of morphine addiction.

The answer to morphine addiction? Heroin. The St. James Society mailed free heroin samples to morphine addicts to help curb morphine addiction but simultaneously caused the growth of heroin addiction. Heroin addiction became popular again in the 1930s and 40s’ Harlem jazz scene and again in the Beatnik subculture during the 1950s. By the 1980s and 90s, heroin could be smoked and snorted. As of 2011, up to 4.2 million Americans aged 12 and up had used heroin at least once in their lives. A recent data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that heroin use in the U.S. has increased 63 percent between 2002 and 2013.

Whether the drugs a person abuses are legal or illegal, addiction is a serious problem that should be dealt with as soon as possible. To learn more about drug abuse and where to get help, please contact the Colorado Drug Addiction Helpline at 866-218-7546.

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