In “The Odyssey,” Homer refers to a substance which “banishes all care, sorrow, and anger.” Here, he is likely speaking of opium, a substance with the same active ingredient as the modern-day heroin. It seems that from Homer’s time to modern day America, psychoactive substances have fascinated us throughout all of human history. Accordingly, different societies across the eras have invented standards governing their usage—ranging from regulation, to spiritual justifications, to prohibition. In particular, the United States has distinguished itself from others in the scale and enforcement of efforts to curb public drug use–extending a mere dislike to a full-on war.
People view drug use and abuse within different frameworks, with intensely social, political, medical, and historical implications. In particular, drugs are not only viewed within a schema of facts, but of morality—an ideology that views psychoactive substances as fundamentally wrong. Much of this stems from fears of substances seizing our autonomy: either while under the influence or while addicted.
In the United States, this moralization of drugs has been extended to create associations between certain drugs and certain groups of people. A New York Times article from 1905 cries about individuals “selling cocaine promiscuously to negroes”—an attitude which continues to affect public perceptions of the black community today. According to Charles Whitebread, a former professor at the University of Southern California Law School, the one universal rule of U.S. drug policy is that “prohibitions are always enacted by US, to govern the concept of THEM.”
This social distinction is just one part of America’s narrative surrounding drug usage. Ultimately, these trends in perceptions are deeply rooted in a centuries-long cultural tradition that can be broadly divided into three distinct periods.
1607-1914: The Early Republic
In an interview with the HPR, Harvard Professor Jane Kamensky, an Early American historian, described Puritan New England as “a society that believed deeply in order.” Early America saw a conflict between the notions of American individual industry and dissention, and a nation deeply beset in stringent moral values. This conflict arose in Puritan perceptions of drug usage.
By far, Puritan New England was dominated by three drugs: coffee, tea, and rum. Here, Kamensky describes a distinction between “coffee talk” and “tea talk.” Coffee talk symbolized the space of ideas, and masculine discourse, while “tea talk” symbolized the space of effeminate gossip. Neither of these substances were moralized for their drug properties, or as psychoactive substances. Instead, tea in particular was moralized due to its association with the British “Other.” This made it more desirable, and raised question to its ethical status.
While alcohol was universally common, drunkenness was strictly associated with the lower classes of society. In “The Alcoholic Republic,” W.J. Rorabaugh describes a culture of heavy tolerance and moderate consumption of alcohol, reaching a peak of 7.1 gallons of alcohol by all individuals above 15 years old in 1830. He describes a society where “many parents intended … early exposure to alcohol to accustom their offspring to the taste of liquor, to encourage them to accept the idea of drinking small amounts, and thus to protect them from becoming drunkards.” At this time, slaves likely consumed far less alcohol than the ruling classes—yet culturally, the public associated public drunkenness precisely with this class. This neatly brings together both themes of the morality of drug use in the Americas—the loss of control bringing into question one’s autonomous status, as well as the association of use with a non-powerful group in American society.
As the United States rapidly industrialized following the Civil War, drug use skyrocketed and the morality surrounding it followed. Industrialism meant enormous growth in tobacco and coffee, both of which had already been popular drugs in the United States, as well as new innovations in cocaine and morphine. At the same time, a stigma developed around the consumption of alcohol at work as efficiency and productivity became the hallmarks of American labor.
Early records of perceptions towards cocaine use seemed positive. A New York Times article from 1885 extolled the “many blessings [that] will yet result from experimenting with cocaine.” Coca Cola was first developed in 1886, branded as a method for recreational cocaine use—however, by this point, tides had already shifted against the drug, with articles speaking about “the cocaine habit” and the “racked and prostrated condition” of cocaine users as early as 1887. As industrial cocaine production became associated with this loss of humanity, the nation turned against the drug—and Coca Cola only saw a boom in sales when it rebranded itself as “Delicious and Refreshing.”
This rapid growth of varied drug use and chaos over their moral categorization, coupled with increasing migration, would lay the foundation for later criminalization policies.
1914-1971: The Beginnings of National Prohibition:
Universally, it appears that the prohibition of any drug has followed three steps. Cultural shifts begin with the association of the drug with a particular minority demographic. These proceed to widespread fears surrounding usage and its effects on society. Finally, a perception of a sharp increase in the drug use solidifies its status as “illicit.” Massive industrialization and immigration in the early 1900s followed this formula, culminating with the Harrison Narcotics Tax of 1914, which first regulated opium and cocaine at a national level. This was the first instance of drug prohibition in national policy but it would certainly not be the last.
This process started sixteen years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when a Scientific American article in 1898 articulated that “wherever the Chinese are found there will be the odor of opium.” This racial stigmatization shifted public perception of opioids almost entirely from a casual acceptance to hate and eventually, criminalization. The image of the “Chinaman” seducing American women into prostitution in opium dens dominated majority perceptions towards the drug, factoring into future morphine and heroin policy.
Cocaine followed a similar trend. Although the drug was initially used by academics and medical practitioners between 1890 and 1920, it developed a heavy association with laborers, youth, and black Americans in urban society. Thomas Crothers, a contemporary observer who wrote widely about the effects of “inebriety,” described a phenomenon where “persons of the tramp and low criminal classes who use this drug are increasing in many of the cities.” This quickly developed into a national hysteria over the so-called “cocaine-fiend”—an imagined cocaine-crazed violent predator, usually working in labor, and almost always black.
Marijuana prohibition followed a very comparable trajectory. Here, the concern revolved largely around Mexican immigrants in the Southwest. Fears about marijuana first arose during Alcohol Prohibition, when women and churches worried that individuals would simply substitute alcoholism with marijuana addiction. The idea that marijuana as a drug took away a user’s sense of control developed shortly afterwards and was most famously propagated by the movie “Reefer Madness” in 1936. The first federal prohibition of recreational cannabis came with the Marihuana Tax Act, in 1937, thus completing the major triad that continues to dominate U.S. drug policy today.
1971-present: The Drug War
Modern opinion is split on whether societal norms and values influence drug policy, or whether policy precedes change in public opinion. Truth be told, the answer is probably a mix of both— as drug prohibition became increasingly strict at a national level, public perception pigeon-holed addicts into morally lower classes. Correspondingly, as public perception turned tides towards drug criminalization, policy shortly followed. These two mechanisms, especially the former, have become obvious in American history through the modern War on Drugs.
In 1971, President Nixon first declared the now-famous “War on Drugs,” calling drug abuse “public enemy number one.” In particular, however, this consisted not in a war on drugs themselves—but a war on drug users, focusing efforts towards “eradication, interdiction, and incarceration.”
Socially, the trend ramped up with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. This effort inaugurated the zero-tolerance principle for drug use and abuse, and set a goal to educate a new generation specifically on a grounded, prohibitionist, drug-morality. Many programs commenced by these traditions are still in place, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in Los Angeles, despite questionable efficacy.
Ironically, in a post-Civil Rights United States, as it became no longer acceptable to explicitly link drug usage with particular demographics, drugs have become a cultural stand-in to avoid explicitly talking about demographics. The “heroin addict” remains almost synonymous with black youth in urban poverty—yet using this moniker places enough distance from racial connotations to maintain political correctness.
The most notable manifestation of this is in the widely unequal criminal sentencing for freebase cocaine (“crack”) and its powdered form. Chemically, these two drugs are almost identical, with very similar effects. Their primary difference is in price, resulting in a major disparity of use and punishment across different demographics. Until very recently, crack cocaine held penalties as much as 100 times as harsh as powder cocaine—and crack stays associated with black neighborhoods. Although this was reduced to only 18 times as harsh, with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the racial connotation remains impossible to overlook.
In addition, previously noted fears about drug usage taking away autonomy continue to arise periodically. “Spice,” a blanket term for a number of synthetic substances that mimic the effects of marijuana, is an example of the continued adaptation of drugs to evade legislation. As a new variant of spice takes over the news cycle, public opinion radically shifts, leaving policymakers scrambling to patch up holes. While usage of the “Big Three” illegal drugs (cocaine, heroin, and marijuana) remains similar, drugs such as fentanyl and krokodil have become household names. In the same theme as the above analyses, these do not arise because of particular properties of the drugs themselves—but because of properties of cultural perception.
In this way, two things are clear: the first is that drug policy relies on a variety of moral and sociopolitical patterns that are as old as the United States itself. The second is that regardless of any policy, drugs are here to stay. They become illegal and immoral when they are associated with a distinct voiceless “Other” that can be easily repressed by the majority, and when they raise question about individuals’ moral autonomy. These trends and traditions stretch back to the very foundations on which the American republic stands and by understanding that, the possibility for comprehensive drug reform becomes a bit more possible.
Image Credit: U.S. Marshals Service Office of Public Affairs/Flickr