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The History of Illegal Drugs in the U.S.

Drug arrest figures from 1979 until now tell a powerful story about the history of drug laws and enforcement in the United States. In 1979, fewer than 200 arrests took place for every 100,000 people. By 2016, this number had increased to around 400 arrests per 100,000 people.1

These numbers illustrate the rapidly evolving drug policy landscape over the past 5 decades; however, drug regulation and policing began well before the first drug task force was established in the 1970s.2 Over the centuries, drug restriction efforts have increased from tax measures with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, to strict policing and criminalization with the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988.3

Below, we explore the history of illegal drugs in the United States, including cocaine, opium, marijuana, LSD, and MDMA.


For many years, cocaine was a legally distributed substance and an active ingredient in a number of products. The drug was first labeled as a pharmaceutical for those with low energy and as an energy-boosting supplement for athletes.4 By the turn of the 20th century, cocaine could be found in many products, including Coca-Cola and even margarine, and was regularly prescribed as a cure-all for ailments ranging from morphine addiction to asthma to tuberculosis and hay fever.5

Eventually, reports of cocaine addiction sparked concern that the drug posed a serious threat to the health and safety of its users. Local and state law makers began to restrict cocaine use, and eventually the federal government stepped in to curb drug abuse, including cocaine, with the passage of the Harrison Act of 1914. The law banned non-medical uses of drugs such as cocaine and required health professionals to register for tax stamps and keep records of the drugs they prescribed to prove the legitimacy of their diagnoses.

After cocaine was banned, the drug largely went off the radar, except for a relatively minor blip during the Prohibition era. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the drug regained popularity. The drug first became a trendy choice among America’s elite. However, by the mid 1980s the average street price had significantly declined, and more than 6 million Americans were using cocaine on a regular basis.6

The widespread use of cocaine and other drugs in the 1980s culminated in some historical changes to national drug policy. President Ronald Reagan labeled drugs “America’s number one problem,” and cited the growing problem of crack cocaine as the primary target for anti-drug legislation and enforcement.4 First Lady Nancy Reagan bolstered the crusade with her Just Say No campaign, and the media joined her with fervent coverage of crack cocaine abuse and resulting tragedies.

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act to enforce strict mandatory minimum sentencing for drug users and increased the federal budget for supply-reduction efforts. Two years later, Congress strengthened measures to restrict cocaine use and sales with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.7 The laws imposed more serious penalties for crack cocaine than powdered cocaine. As a result, people in lower-income neighborhoods, where crack cocaine was sold as the more affordable form of cocaine, were subject to lengthy prison sentences.8

Today, pharmaceutical cocaine is classified as a Schedule II drug by the DEA, meaning the drug possesses high potential for abuse, but has currently accepted—albeit severely restricted—medical use. A person trafficking 500 to 5,000 grams of cocaine (powder) or 28 to 279 grams of cocaine base (crack cocaine) can receive a 5- to 20-year prison sentence for a first offense.9


The United States legally imported opium for more than 100 years.10 Opium is a dried, sappy substance harvested from the opioid poppy seed pod. In its raw form, it had long been observed as a powerful pain reliever, and several of its component alkaloid substances—which include morphine, codeine, and thebaine—would eventually serve as building blocks for the synthesis of many household drugs, including those for diarrhea, insomnia, bronchitis, and psychosis.11 By 1858, it was reported that 300,000 pounds of opium came to America each year.11

Historians note that the American Civil War was the turning point for widespread abuse of opiates.12 Opium-based drugs including morphine provided powerful relief for veterans suffering from physical pain and mental illness. In 1895, pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, released a new drug more powerful than aspirin and “safer than morphine” marketed under the brand name, Heroin.12   

By 1903, heroin abuse rose to alarming levels in the United States, igniting concern from the federal government.13 The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 mandated that manufacturers disclose the contents of their products so consumers could discern opium-based products.13 A few years later, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, which banned opium for the purpose of smoking.12

The first steps to curb opium traffic took place in 1909 when President Theodore Roosevelt called for an international conference to control opium movement across international borders.10 The resulting agreement restricted the use of opium overseas while doing nothing to control its use in the United States. It wasn’t until the Harrison Act of 1914 that opium sale and use was restricted at a national level.

Near the start of World War II, oxycodone was first introduced to the U.S. market. A few years later, another synthetic opioid—hydrocodone—began being marketed in the U.S. as an FDA-approved narcotic analgesic. Despite their availability, many doctors were leery of prescribing opiates because of the known risks of dependence. It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War that opiate use surged again as recreational drug abuse hit an all-time high and heroin use spiked among veterans.14 The federal government responded with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 and the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973 to restrict access to opiates.14

Throughout the 1970s, doctors continued to avoid writing prescriptions for opioid medications, but by the 1980s and 1990s, a push for adequate pain management started to form among medical researchers.15 In 1994, Purdue Pharma began testing OxyContin, an extended-release version of oxycodone, for long-term pain management.15 In 1998, Purdue Pharma released an advertisement that depicted people who found relief from chronic pain by way of OxyContin. A year after the ad came out, opioid painkiller prescriptions jumped by 11 million.15

The push for pain management continued in 2001 when the Joint Commission set a standard for all physicians to assess the level of pain among their patients. The Joint Commission circulated educational materials and a printed book that asserted, “there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control.”15

By 2014, opioid abuse had become a national problem. Nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids, and many had turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative to prescription medications.16

In 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to address the opioid epidemic. The law authorizes more than $180 million each year in new funding to fight the opioid epidemic in the form of prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement, criminal justice reform, and overdose reversal.17

Today, synthetic opioids including heroin, illicitly manufactured fentanyl, and certain fentanyl analogues are classified as Schedule I drugs. An individual trafficking 40 to 399 grams of fentanyl, 10 to 99 grams of fentanyl analogue, or 100 to 999 grams of heroin is subject to between 5 and 40 years in prison.9


Much like cocaine and opium, marijuana was a popular ingredient in many medical products sold in the late 19th century.18 It wasn’t until after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 when Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States with marijuana in tow, that recreational marijuana use took hold.18 As instability mounted during the Great Depression, fear of Mexican immigrants escalated in tandem with anti-marijuana sentiment from the public and government. By 1931, marijuana was outlawed in 29 states.18 

In 1937, the federal government took action with the Marijuana Tax Act, a law that criminalized marijuana possession and sale.18 More severe measures followed in 1952 with the passage of the Boggs Act, which enforced mandatory sentences for offenses involving a number of drugs, including marijuana.19 The first offense for marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2 to 10 years.20

In the 1960s and 1970s, drug use escalated with the counterculture and the free love era. Marijuana was associated with the movement, thus the federal government maintained its distaste for the drug and its symbolism. When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which established categories for various drugs, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug—the most restrictive category.14

In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed a bipartisan commission to evaluate laws surrounding marijuana.19 The commission determined that personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized, but Nixon rejected the recommendation. The commission’s findings were taken seriously by state lawmakers, however. Eleven states decriminalized marijuana after the commission published its report.19

In the 1980s, public attitudes shifted again when President Reagan championed the War on Drugs. In 1986, when President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, he raised federal penalties for marijuana possession and dealing.19 

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. By 2013, 19 other states had followed suit with laws that permitted the use of marijuana for medical purposes.21 The federal government responded with crack-downs and raids, claiming medical marijuana producers were using their licenses as a cover for large-scale drug operations.

In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to approve recreational use of marijuana.21 Today, 8 states have approved marijuana for recreational use including Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Washington, D.C. has also legalized recreational marijuana use.

The federal government maintains its firm stance on marijuana trafficking, imposing penalties when dealers cross state lines. The first offense for trafficking 100 to 999 kilograms is 5 to 40 years in prison.9


LSD was created in 1938 by Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman.22 He ingested the drug accidentally and discovered that it produced vivid hallucinations. The drug eventually found its way to the United States when the CIA began conducting LSD experiments to better understand mind control and the drug’s effect on manipulating behavior for interrogation purposes.22

After military interest in LSD decreased, the psychiatric community began testing the drug for possible therapeutic treatments among epileptic and depressed patients. The first groups to use LSD for non-therapeutic purposes were those who received the drug from psychiatrist friends; thus, only a small number of people experimented with the drug throughout the 1950s.9

The drug was popularized in the 1960s during the counterculture movement.22 Two groups played a heavy hand in popularizing LSD: The League for Spiritual Discovery and the Merry Pranksters. The League for Spiritual Discovery focused on academic experiments related to human consciousness, while the Merry Pranksters hosted LSD-fueled parties. The Merry Prankster events, called Acid Tests, combined LSD with musical experience to create vivid, hallucinogenic experiences.24 These parties helped shape the psychedelic art and acid rock music now associated with the Summer of Love in 1967.25  

In 1968, out of growing concern of the dangers posed by the drug, Congress passed the Staggers-Dodd Bill, making it illegal to possess LSD.23 In the 1970s, LSD was categorized as a Schedule I drug, and in the 1980s, mandatory sentences for LSD possession were sanctioned.

LSD use declined throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, but the drug regained popularity in the 1990s within the rave subculture.9 Today, the drug remains a Schedule I drug, and a person trafficking between 1 and 9 grams of LSD is subject to 5 to 40 years in prison for a first offense.


MDMA was first created in 1912 by a German pharmaceutical company as an intermediate compound to be used for the synthesis of medications used to control uterine bleeding.25 The drug gained footing in the United States in the late 1970s among psychiatrists who believed MDMA helped facilitate client sessions and reduce inhibitions so patients could find clarity surrounding their struggles.25

Throughout the 1980s, MDMA use increased among recreational users—most notably among college students and young professionals.26 The drug became synonymous with rave culture and began appearing in nightclubs throughout Dallas and Chicago. By the summer of 1985, the drug, also commonly referred to as Adam or Ecstasy, had become alarmingly widespread in its use.27 The government responded that same year, declaring an emergency ban on MDMA and placing the drug as a Schedule I substance.25   

Academics met the FDA’s decision with opposition, igniting a highly publicized debate between law enforcement and the scientific community. A petition requesting hearings was sent to the DEA, and legal processions began. The judge assigned to the hearing recommended that the DEA place MDMA on a less restrictive schedule. The DEA maintained its stance, yet the drug was briefly removed from Schedule I in 1987 before returning to that position a few months later where it remains today.29

MDMA use recently regained popularity with the electronic dance music (EDM) culture. Between 2008 and 2011, the EDM scene exploded and music festivals featuring hypnotic lights and pulsing music encouraged young concert-goers to experiment with MDMA and its derivatives.29 Data indicates that American teens reporting Ecstasy or MDMA use increased by 67% between 2008 and 2011.29

While MDMA remains a Schedule I drug today, no mandatory minimum sentences are enforced by the DEA.9

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