Drug Use in America Over the Past 150 Years

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 8
Words: 2539
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD


For the last 150 years, the consumption of drugs in America has undergone dramatic changes. The society initially felt no problem in the use of drugs like alcohol because they even had medicinal value attached to them. Other drugs like cocaine and marijuana were also discovered and taken as psychoactive drugs. For alcohol, no one had complained about its use as long as it was not taken excessively to an extent where it would interfere with work and thus adversely affect the whole society. Between 1920 and 1933, America had the greatest experiment on the prohibition of alcohol that was historic in that a law was passed through the 18th amendment and later repealed through the 21st amendment when the experiment failed. This gave a lesson towards control of drugs in current America.


According to (Kyvig, 2005) Over the last 150 years, America has witnessed a major decline in the consumption of drugs because, at current, only about 6% of individuals aged 12 years and above are on record of using illegal drugs. Before 1979, the rating on the numbers of drug users was as high as 50% and so the major decline compared to today is an indication of the positive behavior change in American society. In spite of this positive drop, research indicates that above 75% of Americans aged 12 years and above have at least once tried to take an illicit drug. Among the ones who have tried illicit drugs in the past, 90% of them tried either marijuana or hashish. Some took cocaine as well as prescription drugs with no valid reasons based on health grounds.

(Kyvig, 2005) argues that statistics indicate that about 60 million users of drugs who engaged in illicit drugs while they were young stopped this habit at their adult age. For more than a decade, Americans have believed that drug abuse is a problem that only arises through sharing and that the users usually belong to a certain segment of society. They also think that the use of the drug is remote from their environment, but this is a misconception because about 75% of those who use the drug are employed working class.

The trend in the drug use

(Engs, 1999) found that the consumption of drugs around the globe largely took place between the 19th and 20th centuries where the discoveries were made as man tried to come up with psychoactive chemical agents from natural materials such as cocaine from the leaves of the cocoa plant. There was also the synthetic discovery of psychoactive chemicals, which were preferred due to their degree of purity compared with the natural chemicals. The use of cocaine in the United States has reduced since it hit its peak in consumption in 1985. Statistics collected in1995 showed that there was a decline of about 75% in the users of cocaine compared to those who used it earlier. The use of methamphetamine, marijuana, and other illicit drugs such as hallucinogens also declined dramatically. However, as the use of hard drugs declined, the trend in the youth registered an increase in the use of other alternative illegal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. The challenge with the adoption of this trend was that youth who engaged in the consumption of alcohol were at a higher risk of becoming life-long dependant on the same drugs. They were also exposed to higher health risks, as claimed by researchers in Columbia university center. If a child is using marijuana, then his/her chances of using cocaine are more than 80% compared to those who never tried marijuana.

Consumption of alcohol about 150 years ago

(Engs, 1999) Found that, in many parts of colonial settlement in the United States of America, alcohol was consumed by several individuals, and the habit was not opposed by many in the society. It only became a practical concern in communities that were not large, and even puritans gained pleasure in its consumption. The majority of members were only against excessive drinking, which caused drunkenness, with the argument being that, too much drinking would affect the workforce in crop cultivation and fishing as well hunting and gathering, and therefore the general community would suffer. This reasoning resulted in the frowning of alcohol which consequently led to the establishment of some laws meant to officially prohibit the consumption of alcohol. During the civil war, alcohol used to be prescribed by doctors as medicine, among many other concoctions used by the natives. An example was whisky which people knew worked, for example, by pouring it on wounds even though they could not tell how.

According to (Engs, 1999) Alcohol also became an alternative to chloroform and ether, which were initially used as anesthesia but were rare. Alcohol was used to ease the pain as other methods were employed to cure the disease an individual could be suffering from. Even soldiers returning from the war were given alcohol as a recreational drink if not for treatment. This made them oppose temperance, which by then had been introduced by various denominations as a way of controlling the usage of alcohol. In 1880, several women joined together in the fight against alcohol, and for the first time, they used a political approach to do so. Several reforms were put in place, such as banning tobacco and theaters being closed. Labor laws were enacted, but among all these, the most effective was the closing of saloons where most of the drugs and alcohol were sold. Saloons were also associated with corruption and contagion as well as vice. Since the saloons were the source of almost all evil, the center of which was alcohol, an anti-saloon league was formed. This became the start of prohibition, with much focus being on safeguarding children from drug abuse. Prohibition became prominent in schools, with a lot of materials against the alcohol flooding in schools and several pledges being designed for the children to memorize.

(Peck, 1985) found that, in 1918, the 18th amendment was passed to prohibit all transactions regarding the business in alcohol, and this included manufacturing and sale as well as transportation of alcohol and any other intoxicating substance. This was done through the supreme law that required Congress to pass an act enforcing the amendment. The supporters of the amendment interpreted intoxicating substance as liquor such as whisky as well as distilled spirits most of which was between 40-90% alcohol. The only permitted beer was the one that contained between 7-13% alcohol. However, Volstead, with support from triumphant evangelicals, had a deferent definition for liquors and said it would be the one that contained more than 1% alcohol. Volstead, with support from anti-German as well as anti-beer bias, won the battle on the national prohibition act. This made the supporters of the 18th amendment feel betrayed as well as the veterans who by then were returning home after the 1st world war. The soldiers had gotten used to daily drinking of alcohol and therefore could no longer believe the much said about the dangers of alcohol consumption. When the resolution was passed in January 1920, individuals who felt they could not do without alcohol stocked up at home and those who could not afford it were supplied from saloons. The saloons remained open till they were shut down, a process that took several months. Federal authorities used all means at their disposal to prohibit liquor, and they even went beyond destroying the drink by destroying the bars and fixtures.

According to (Peck, 1985) by 1921, just one year after this law was implemented, the reserves were over, and there was a lot of thirsts even in individuals who had not tasted liquor before. It was very surprising to note that prohibition of alcohol made several individuals irresistible to it than ever before, and this was likened with the forbidden fruit- the fruit, in this case, being the wine. Whenever anyone wanted to drink, nothing could stop him/her. By 1923, the number of saloons operating the unlawful business went underground and increased in number by more than 300%. The saloon turned into speak-easies which welcomed even women who regularly frequented there. Managing the speak-easies became well organized in order to survive because it was now a crime, and this resulted in organized crime. A good organization was necessary so as to pay off the state and authorities in the federal government, and this amounted to a lot of money, consequently raising up the price of beer. Mexico and Canada became very wet more than ever before. The supply of liquor in the neighboring town improved, and both the Atlantic and Pacific coast were connected with ships supplying liquor from other sources. As a result of prohibition, the practice of taking beer shifted to homes, and individuals even distilled the liquor for personal consumption as well as for sale. Due to the scarcity and lack of proper information, people started consuming alcohol made from grains and wood, which was initially meant for industrial use only. Grape was grown in large quantities than before to supply the homemade liquor, which had for a long time been prohibited.

(Ridgley, 1994) argues that, since liquor with an alcohol content of 0.5% had been permitted, and all one needed to do was to make the ordinary beer and later dilute as the last stage, many are the individuals who forgot to dilute it, and so a large quantity went through the market to be sold in the speak-easies. Many people pretended to be sick because taking alcohol as medicine was allowed for medicinal value. Doctors prescribed alcohol more than ever for reasons one could not tell. In addition to alcohol, several other over-the-counter drugs were prescribed according to the medicinal quality of the liquor.

(Rotskoff, 2002) found that this war on the consumption of alcohol was finally lost after 13 years of struggle after a committee reported to congress that prohibition was not being effective. The presidential candidates by then: D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, also supported the repeal of the 18th amendment, and when Roosevelt won the election, he amended the Volstead act and permitted alcohol content of 3.2%. In 1933 during the 21st constitution amendment, the eighteenth amendment was repealed. This made history because before then; there was no law in the land which had been repealed. Although today prohibition is history, much of its effect is still felt.

Lessons learned from the prohibition of alcohol are applicable today

According to (Rotskoff, 2002) the use of force and strict laws in fighting against drug use can easily result in general disrespect for the law. During prohibition, so many people broke the law to the extent that had not been witnessed before. Respect for the religion was eroded because prohibition, which had been justified by God, failed, and so some people interpreted this to mean God had failed. Many people, even the evangelicals who caused a lot of harm, never apologized. It seemed Satan was always at work and ready not to be defeated. The prohibition approach led to organized crime, and gangsters were not just well paid, but they also had an improved link. Society did not perceive the gang as real bandits but as people who deviated from the law with a genuine excuse of helping them obtain a rare commodity that they needed. Law enforcement was therefore permanently corrupted through the court system as well as politics. Judges and prosecutors, as well as politicians, were threatened to cover the criminals, and failure to comply meant that they would either be eliminated or be voted out in a more procedural manner during the following election. The bandits would just have their candidate to support in order to eliminate the uncooperative leader.

(Schur, 2002) found that the police force and the courts were overburdened since most of the court cases were related to those who broke the law on prohibition resulting in a lot of congestion, and prosecutors were almost unable to perform their duties. According to the study conducted on the trend in drug use after the prohibition law was removed, the consumption declined to mid 19th century, and there was even a deviation from alcohol to other drugs. Statistics indicate that in1960s the consumption of alcohol had extremely declined. However, the decade that followed was witnessed by a rise in alcohol consumption up to 1970, when the rates in use again declined up to 1990. At this time, the consumption of alcohol among adults had almost reached consistent levels, but among the youths, it was beginning to rise again, especially for marijuana. The sharp rise came to a stall among grade eleven around the mid-1990s, where it is consistent at present. However, the use of marijuana is still high among youths even to this date.

Recommendations on the anti-drug campaign

According to (Schur 2002), the fight against trafficking of prohibited drugs requires the government to operate undercover methods to arrest the culprits. However, the approach is costly and requires a lot of time as well as being cautious. Researches have shown that the deeper the undercover the agent is, the more the risks under which he/she operated. This requires the agent to be properly equipped with security measures as well as with vehicles fitted with equipment like video cameras to allow documentation and availability of evidence when the case is being processed. Where the agent is not able to reach the traffickers due to the complexity of the ladder, then it is recommended that conspiracy be used where the leaders of the gang are targeted as they seek security from some officers in the government.


(Schoedinger, 2004) concluded that, even though the preference in the use of the drug is still alarmingly high, it has not yet reached the epidemic level as it was witnessed in the late1970s. The only important challenge being witnessed is reversing the dangerous trend in case they have taken roots. The dangers that were associated with the use of drugs included unhealthy as well as behavior that was unproductive. The use of these illegal drugs was believed to be causing premature sexual activity and unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. The users were found to be more involved with delinquency and other involvement in criminal activities. Among youths aged below17 years, there has been a notable increase in the use of illicit drugs. According to a study conducted by the student at the University of Michigan in1996, more than 50% of students in high school consumed illicit drugs, especially alcohol, at least once before they graduated.


Boon M. (2002): The road of excess; A history of writers on drugs: Harvard University Press pp25-30.

Engs R. (1999): Responsible drug and alcohol use: MacMillan Publishing Company pp13-18.

Kyvig D. (2005): Order, alcohol and law; Perspectives of National Prohibition: Greenwood Press pp10-14.

Peck D. (1985): Alcohol, drugs and school leavers: Tavistock publications pp45-49.

Ridgley R. (1994): A cultural history of intoxicants in society, America: Kodansha pp11-16.

Rotskoff L. (2002): Alcohol in Post-World war II, America: University of North Carolina Press pp13-19.

Schur E. (2002): Narcotic Addiction in Britain and America: Greenwood Press pp34-39.

Schoedinger A. (2004): Where have all our values gone: Xlibris Corporation pp24-29.