The History of the United States and the Drug Culture

Before beginning this I will set out the treatment I will follow. I’ll examine the use of “drugs” at various times and places in the United States, including the colonies that eventually became the United States. I’ll examine the use of what are considered to be, for lack of a better definition, “mind altering substances”. I’ll also include the attitudes of the various societies in their time and place. For instance, while the Puritans of Massachusetts are generally considered to be, well Puritanical, they drank alcohol often and liberally regarding this as “a good creature of God” The Victorians were also renowned for their “puritanical” attitudes but I will remind readers that the most famous Victorian, albeit fictional, is Sherlock Holmes and he was a cocaine addict, (see Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story: Seven Percent Solution ). In order to understand drug use, the societal context must be taken into account.
A little background first. While the Iberians, the Spanish and Portuguese, and the French conquered, traded with, and in many cases enslaved the indigenous population, the English pursued a different policy; they sought from the beginning of their invasion to displace the Native Americans and take the land for the sole use of the European settlers. This policy continued when the British colonies became the United States. What has this to do with drugs? The British determined what use the land would be put to, what would be grown and what would be exported. The Spanish, Portuguese and French exported what the land and the native population produced, principally furs, sugar, gold and silver. This examination will concentrate on the English settlements.
The English were late in establishing a permanent presence in the Americas. Jamestown and Plymouth were settled more than a hundred years after the Spanish had begun their conquests, and the empire the Spanish forged was well established by the time the English and French arrived. Much is made of the Jamestown colony and how it was saved by the intervention of the princess Pocahontas, but the real salvation of the colony was tobacco.
Tobacco was used by the native people, apparently in rituals, and the colonists soon recognized it as a potent drug, producing pleasant stimulation and of course addiction. The export of tobacco became the mainstay of commerce in Virginia. The profits from this trade sustained the colony and allowed expansion and eventually near complete displacement of the natives . The success of English settlements also allowed the English to drive the French from Canada, the French government that is, not the French settlers, at least not all of them. This success led to the English being expelled in turn by their colonies.
The various causes of the Revolutionary War are well explored elsewhere, but one of the most famous incidents is the Boston Tea Party: a drug turf war. Tea was considered a stimulant at the time and the earliest leaves (“tiny little tea leaves” Tetley teas called them in the 1950’s) were prized for their potency. While we do not regard tea as a drug today, its soothing nature is appreciated along with the caffeine it processes. That the British government controlled the market in this drug trade was resented as much because tea was prized as it was because local dealers (smugglers), like John Handcock, resented the competition. There were a great many other issues involved of course, but the Revolutionary War was at least in part a turf war over the drug tea.
The war was fought and won, but when Washington became president, few thought that the nation would last. There was no hard cash and the paper money issued during the war was worthless. “Not worth a continental” was a common phrase. The only hard currency was the Spanish silver dollar. Taxes had to be collected from somewhere, and the somewhere was corn whiskey.
The taxation of distilled liquor has a substantial history; the “proof” attached to spirits derives from the Royal tax collectors in England where distilled liquor was taxed according to the alcohol content. The government agents would mix a sample with a small amount of gun powder, set it on fire, and if it burned, it was said to be 100% “proved” and taxable, or a hundred proof whiskey. No such proof was required when the citizens of Appalachia brought their corn liquor to market, but riots did ensue when attempts were made to collect the tax. Militias were called out, and George Washington, the father of his country, found himself at war with its citizens, some of whom had fought for independence beside the general. Kentucky was one of the principle sources of corn liquor, Bourbon County providing whiskey and its name too. It was much easier to transport the jugs of whiskey than the corn to market, and so moonshining began and continues still I’m told, a legacy of this early effort at government control of drugs. I did drink some moonshine in 1975 when I worked in Kentucky and have a great deal of respect for anyone who drinks it regularly. I was living in a dry county at the time. Worth noting is that George spent a considerable amount of his income as president on his liqueur supply and he owned the largest distillery in the United States in 1797.
Washington and many other politicians openly plied voters with spirits at the polling stations. This was not unusual and reach its zenith in the 1839 campaign of William Henry Harrison, hero of The Battle of Tippecanoe. The candidates slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, (vice president Tyler that is), and the campaign was a circus of rolling large balls from town to town (keep the ball rolling), barbeques, log cabins and hard cider. The term booze meaning alcohol became popular during this campaign when distiller E. G. Booz made bottles shaped like log cabins filled with – well “Booze”,
Although most people at that time, the early 19th century, regarded alcohol as an intoxicant (read drug here) it was not felt to be necessarily bad, like – well opium. Or maybe it was like opium. During this period Commodore Mathew Perry was sailing into Japanese ports demanding that they open themselves to trade, thus planting the seeds of Japanese modernization and in due course Japanese expansion and World War II. The “open door policy” originated with the United States and was applied to all Asian nations, including China. The British and other Europeans with the United States in a small role, eventually forced China to allow the admission of the opium trade into their country. The Opium Wars began when the Chinese government became alarmed about the rising opium addiction problem in their population and attempted to stop the importers, Britain being the principle merchant, from continuing the trade. If this sounds familiar it’s because it is. The United States is faced with a similar situation with rising addiction to drugs imported from Columbia, Mexico, etc. The difference is that China was overwhelmed in her war, while the United States processes the military upper hand now. Or at least we imagine it does. If the war is fought with aircraft carriers that is true, but if the battles are on city streets or the internet the outcome may not be as we assume. The Opium Wars lasted from 1839 to 1860. The participation of the United States was minor as said, but the underlying principle was always that market economics should be extended to all the world’s nations whether they wished to accept the trade or not: opium or cocaine, China or the United States the principle is the same. Meanwhile the United States became less “united” and began her Civil War.
Ulysses S. Grant was credited with winning the Civil War for the Union, defeating the Confederate States of America, and became the president in due course to head one of the most corrupt administrations in this country’s history. He was also renowned as a drinker and a smoker of cigars. His ultimate death was a result of this habit, a head and neck cancer. As he was dying, however, he was also writing his memoir while being liberally supplied with laudanum (opium) and a cocaine fortified Bordeaux wine. Grant’s book was a best seller. At about this same time one of our national treasures, The Statue of Liberty, was being designed by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi a user of this same Bordeaux-cocaine wine. The creator of this mixture was Angelo Mariani and it was sold as Vin Mariani. Angelo was a master of marketing, and among the first to use celebrity endorsements. The endorsements were a list of luminaries including: Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XII, Pope Saint Pius X and John Phillips Sousa. Competition arose of course and when in 1885, Atlanta, Georgia passed legislation prohibiting the sale of cocaine and alcohol mixtures, an enterprising pharmacist named John Pemberton marketed a carbonated mixture containing cocaine and cola: Coca Cola. The cocaine has reportedly been removed from that drink, but of course the formula for Coca Cola is a closely guarded secret. It is sufficient to say that drug use was very popular at the turn of the century, the 19th century that is.
But there was also a rising concern in the country about the use of drugs, particularly alcohol. This became known as the Temperance Movement and it would ultimately result in the Volstead Act, the 19th amendment to the Constitution and the beginning of government regulation of drug use on a major scale. Prohibition of alcohol proved to be a failure, of course, but did not dissuade the government from pursuing a policy of regulation. With the repeal of the 19th amendment, the authority to control alcohol was transferred to local governments many of which still prohibit the sale of alcohol. One of the interesting results is that many of the states that allow the sale of alcohol, allow it only in “state” liquor stores; the government has become the very thing that it previously prosecuted.
It was at about this time that the federal government began to take the substances that were available to its citizens seriously and in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was adopted. The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937 and the government attempted to control both marijuana and immigration. While the two do not seem to be connected, they were, since marijuana was a Mexican product and the immigration of Mexicans was deemed a problem as well, partly because they used marijuana. The debate was and is both inflammatory and polarizing and I will not enter into it here, but will be content to say the people who felt that tobacco and alcohol should remain unrestricted, by the federal government at least, determined that marijuana should be place in the most dangerous drug category. The Controlled Substance Act of the 1970’s placed it in Schedule I. Thus the abandonment of prohibition coincided with the extension of governmental control of other drugs, medicinal and recreational. It was in fact at this point that the distinction between the two became a prominent part of the social culture. This led to the central argument surrounding the legalization of marijuana: its “medical” value. Such an argument, that in order to justify making a “drug” available depended upon demonstrating “medicinal value” would have seemed silly a century earlier.
But the door is now open and the sure path to legalization, if not societal acceptance, lies in proving that there is benefit to what was once illegal. Drugs already established: alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are somewhat exempt from the legal restraints, but the rising tide of “evidence”, real or imagined, that red wine and coffee have beneficial effects shows that this policy extends to the “drugs” we commonly use and would never consider restricting. Is proof of benefit necessary for us to feel comfortable using what we feel are “drugs”? There is a rising body of “evidence” that cocaine may be useful in treating PTSD. Indeed the use of common table salt may be more restricted today than is alcohol.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Bantam Classics, October 1, 1986. ISBN-13: 978-0553328257
Rorabaugh, W.J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, 1979. Oxford University Press, 53.
Frankenburg, Frances R., MD. Brain-Robbers. Praeger Series on Contemporary Health and Living. March 28, 2014 ISBN-13: 978-1440829314.


About pauljanson

Writing about everything
This entry was posted in History, medicine, origin of disease. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The History of the United States and the Drug Culture

  1. Such a conundrum … cocaine for ptsd … marijuana for ms and other dysautonomias … naltrexone (inexpensive and inherently generic) in low doses (LDN) for ‘off label’ pain relief… none of these historically controlled by ‘big pharma’ and so none of these considered valid treatment options in recent years … suddenly being considered for their potential … something is afoot … watching to see how they take control of these ‘non-chemical’ resources…

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