History of the development of narcotics in USA

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Ahmed Mateen
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History of the development of narcotics in USA

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History of the development of narcotics in USA

Drug use in the USA was wide spread throughout the later part of the 19th century

On account of the lack of control over the use of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine gradually in the first two decades, drug acts were introduced, to place control over the manufacture, sale and distribution of a variety of substances. During the same period of history, representatives of law enforcement and the courts in major urban areas began noticing an increasing number of narcotics and its users. In response, researchers in the medicine, law and social sciences began to examine the sequential patterns of drug use and crime, attempt to answer these questions – Is crime the result of a special set of life circumstances brought about by the addiction of narcotics? Conversely, is addiction pre se, some deviant tendency characteristic of individuals already prone to criminal activity?

The answers varied. Many commentators and analysts spoke of a Criminal mode of drug abuse in which they suggested that addicts ought to be the objects of vigorous police activity because the vast majority were members of the dangerous and criminal classes.

Drug use was but a better phase in their already developed career in crime. By contrast, there were those who argued for a ‘medical model of drug abuse’. Addiction, they contended, was a chronic and relapsing disease and the addicts, they continued, should be dealt with as any patient suffering from some physical or psychological disorder. Methods of “demand reduction” and “supply reduction” have been used.

Demand reduction essentially involves treatment for the user, education or prevention for the would be user and research to determine how to best develop and implement plans for treatment, education and prevention.

Supply reduction involves federal interdiction and foreign assistance initiatives aimed at intercepting drugs before they reach US shores, or eradicating them at their sources. Supply and demand reduction strategies, of course, are not mutually exclusive, for they tend to overlap in numerous areas.

Relation of Drug abuse in America
The drug problem as it is understood in 1990, has a relative short history:

Although marijuana, opium, coca leaf and other organic substances with psychoactive properties have been known for thousands of years, their use, on a large scale, for the enhancement of pleasure and performance, spans for less than two centuries. The abuse of drugs as such can be traced in a number of factors – advances in chemistry and medicine, the discovery of raw intoxicants and a variety of social and political changes, all of which combined to make drugs readily available for the relief of many ills, both physical and psychological.

Opium and its derivatives
The specific beginning of drug abuse in the USA are probably buried in antiquity, but in great part, were tied to the introduction of over-the-counter patent medicines during the early 1700s. Opium was a common ingredient in these preparations and by the close of that century medications containing the narcotics were readily available throughout the urban and rural America. The narcotics were sold in pharmacies, in grocery stores, at travelling medicine shows and through the mail, marketed under various names. Many of these remedies were seductively advertised as painkillers, cough mixtures, soothing syrups etc. Others were promoted for the treatment of diarrheas, dysentries, colds, fever, teething, cholera, rheumatism pelvic disorders, athlete’s foot and even baldness and cancer.

The medical profession also fostered the use of opium. Yet the mere appearance of patent medicines in America was only minimally related to the evolution of drug taking, other more potent social forces had been of considerably greater significance.

Remedies were shipped to the colonies from London, as were most of the medications of the period. When trade was disrupted with England during the Revolutionary war, a patent medicine industry emerged in the USA, while for the longest time opium had been the only known product of the Oriental poppy. In 1803, a young German pharmacist,

Fredrick Surturner isolated the chief alkaloid of opium, Morphine, named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. It had a profound effect on both medicine and society; for morphine was and still is the greatest single pain reliever the world has ever known. Furthermore, hypodermic syringes were invented and the use of morphine by injection in Military medicine during the civil war and Franco Prussian war granted the procedure legitimacy and familiarity to both physician and the public.

Beyond opium and morphine, the patent medicine industry branched even further.

Although chewing coca leaves for their mild stimulant effect had been a part of Andean cultures of South America for perhaps a thousand years, for some obscure reasons the practice had never become popular in either Europe or the United States.

Moreover, the full potency of the coca leaf remained unknown until 1960, when cocaine was isolated in pure form. A young Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud, suffering from chronic fatigue, depression and various neurotic symptoms, tried cocaine himself.

He also offered it to his colleagues, urging that they use it for both themselves and their patients. It became an all-purpose wonder drug. Gradually, though, the increasing number of reports of its compulsive use and undesirable side effects came to the surface.


Research into the mysteries of opium during the 19th century lead not only to Serturner’s discovery of Morphine in 1806, but also to the discovery of more than two dozen other alkaloids including codeine in 1831. Later by combining various acids with Morphine, diacetyl morphine was discovered, noting that it was highly effective in the treatment of cough, chest pain and discomforts associated with pneumonia and tuberculosis. Anti-biotics were not discovered so far. This drug was claimed to have stronger sedative effects on respiration than morphine or codeine. Then it came to be marketed under the trade name Heroin (meaning heroic and powerful) by Bayer.

Habituation with Heroin, has been noted in a small percentage of the cases and none of the symptoms which are so characteristic of chronic morphinism have even been observed. Secondly, since the drug had a greater potency than that of morphine, only small doses were required for the desired medical effects, thus reducing the potential for the rapid onset of addiction. Third, at the turn of the 20th century, the medical community did not understand the dynamics of cross-dependence – which means that among certain pharmacological related drugs, physical dependence on one will carry over to all others.

Given the endorsement of the medical community, with little mention of its potential dangers, heroin quickly found its way in to routine medical therapeutics and over the counter patent medicines.

Early drug control measures. – By the early years of the 20th century, the steady progress of medical science had provided a better understanding of the long term effects of the drugs they had been advocating. Sigmund Freud had already recognized his poor judgement in the claim he had made about cocaine, the addiction protection and abuse liability of morphine had been well established, and the dependence producing properties of Bayer’s Heroin were being noticed. Yet these drugs – cocaine, morphine and heroin – often combined with alcohol, were still readily available from a totally unregulated patent medicine industry. The drug controls started in 1906. By 1912, most governments had enacted legislative control over the dispensing and selling of the narcotics but the combined effects of stigma, social pressure, the Pure Food and Drug Act and state controls had served to create an underworld of drug users and black market drugs. Some came to the conclusion that selling ‘dope’ is a very profitable business. These individuals have sent their agents among the gangs frequenting city corners, instructing them to make friends with the members and induce them to take the drug. The plan has worked so well; that there is scarcely a poolroom in New York that may not be called a meeting place for dope friends. The drug has been made in candy and sold to schoolchildren.

During the later part of the decade other observers were noting that although the medically induced addict was still prominent, a new population had recently emerged.

It was an underworld population composed principally of heroin and cocaine users, who had initiated drug use as a result of association with other criminals. Thus it would appear that the emergence of criminal addicts was probably the results of the effects of legislation combined with the creation of a new class of users, who were already within the underworld.

By 1939 the national concern over the use of drugs was not focussed solely on heroin, for another substance was considered by some to represent another greater evil.

The new drug was marijuana, the “devil drug”. Marijuana, typically referred to a century ago as cannabis or hashish, was introduced to the American public in essentially the same manner that opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin were. Marijuana, a derivative of Indian Hemp plant Cannabis Sativa, appeared among the patent medicines and was sold as a cure for depression, convulsions, hysteria, insanity, mental retardation and impotence. Because of its insolubility, the drug quickly fell into disfavour.

LSD – By 1960

The use of drugs, seemed to have leapt from the more marginal zones of the society, to the very main stream of society, to the very main stream of community life.

Whatever the ultimate causes of the drug revolution of the sixties might have been, America’s younger generation, or at least noticeable segments of them, had embraced drugs.

In Basel, Switzerland, in 1938, Sandoz Research Laboratories isolated a new chemical compound, known now as LSD. The researcher was Dr. Albert Hoffman.

On April 16, 1943, after absorbing some LSD through the skin of his fingers, Hoffman began to hallucinate. In his diary, he explained the effect as follows –

“With closed eyes, multihued, metamorphosing, fantastic images overwhelmed me. Sounds were transposed in to visual sensations, so that from each tone or noise a comparable coloured picture was evoked, changing in form and colour Kaleidoscopically”.

By 1963, LSD had achieved its reputation.

Amphetamines. – Throughout the 1960s, heroin remained the most feared drug and by the close of the decade, the addict population in America reached 500,000.

As the 1970s began, the amphetamines were the first item on the government’s agenda for drug reform. The amphetamines were not new drugs but their appearance on the street had been recent: the first use amongst Americans had not come until World War II.

Thousands of servicemen in all of the military branches had been issued Benzedrine, Dexedrine and a variety of other amphetamines, as a matter of course to relieve their fatigue and anxiety. Later, amphetamine drugs became more readily available and began to be used by students cramming for examinations, for truck drivers and others who need to be alert for extended periods of time, in weight control programs and as nasal decongestants. Yet for their effects similar to those of cocaine, in time, they became popular drugs of abuse.

Methaqualone (Quqqlude) was initially synthesized in India during the early 1950s, as a possible antimalarial agent. When its sleep producing properties were discovered later in the decade, many hoped that as non-barbiturate, methaqualone might be a safer alternative to barbiturates. These have been used as a potent central nervous system depressants. They were the drugs of choice for inducing sleep. They were of common use for anesthesia, sedation and the treatment of tension, anxiety and convulsions. But they produced addiction after chronic use, were life threatening on withdraw, and could cause fatal overdoses when combined with alcohol.

PCP or Phenyelidine nervous system excitant agent, having anesthetic, analgesic and hallucinogenic properties was developed in the 1950s. The drug often produced a number of unpleasant side effects, extreme excitement, visual disturbances and delirium.


In America, in the 1980s, both heroin and cocaine use persisted and a few new drugs emerged. One of these was “Ecstasy”, a synthetic hallucinogen that was quickly outlawed. Of greater concern, however, was the new drug called ‘crack’ – a cheap variety of street cocaine that could be smoked and was highly addictive.

(References – “Hand Book of Drug Control in USA” – by James A. Inciardy).

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