History of drug misuse in the United States

Drug misuse in the United States has a long and complex history. The use of drugs has been present in the country since its founding, with the earliest settlers bringing over alcohol and opium. In the 19th century, the use of opium and opium-based products became increasingly prevalent, leading to the creation of laws regulating their sale and use.

One of the first federal drug laws, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, was passed. It placed federal taxes on the sale of opium and cocaine and imposed stricter regulations on their production, distribution and use. However, the law was primarily enforced against African American and Chinese immigrants who were disproportionately affected.

In the early 20th century, the use of marijuana and other drugs was not widespread. However, the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 effectively criminalized the drug. This law was primarily enforced against Mexican immigrants, who were associated with marijuana use.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the use of marijuana, psychedelics, and prescription drugs became popular among young people, leading to a backlash and the creation of new laws and law enforcement efforts to combat drug use. In 1971, President Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat drug use.

The “war on drugs” in the 1980s under President Reagan significantly increased funding for drug law enforcement and led to harsher sentences for drug offenses, disproportionately affecting communities of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the war on drugs has led to the mass incarceration of people of color, particularly Black Americans, for nonviolent drug offenses.

In the 1990s and 2000s, prescription drug misuse emerged as a major problem in the United States. The opioid epidemic began in the late 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies began aggressively marketing opioid painkillers to doctors and patients. This led to widespread misuse of the drugs and a significant increase in opioid-related overdose deaths.

Today, the United States continues to struggle with drug misuse, with opioid addiction and overdose being a particularly pressing issue. Many experts and advocates argue that a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach, is needed to address the issue effectively. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends a comprehensive approach that includes increasing access to addiction treatment, reducing the availability of illicit drugs, and promoting prevention and education programs.


  • “The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • “The opioid epidemic” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
  • “The History of Drugs in America” History.com
  • “The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” Erowid
  • “The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act” Drug Policy Alliance

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