Handbook of Drug Control in the United States

By James A. Inciardi | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The History of Drug Control Policies in the United States

John C. McWilliams

The use of drugs has been prevalent in the United States since the earliest settlement. Consumption of marijuana in the American colonies dates back to the founding of Jamestown, and by 1629 the drug had been introduced into the Puritan colonies of New England. By 1765 George Washington was cultivating marijuana at Mount Vernon, presumably to alleviate the agony of an aching tooth. During the nineteenth century, or what Edward M. Brecher has described as a "dope fiend's paradise," opium could be purchased readily and cheaply. Two opium derivatives, morphine and heroin, were in common use by the latter half of the century and "were as freely accessible as aspirin is today." 1

The distribution of these drugs was not by way of any syndicate or other form of illegal trafficking, but through perfectly legitimate and respectable sources. Physicians nonchalantly prescribed them for patients who did not have to make an office call. Drug stores sold opiates over the counter without a prescription. Grocery stores also stocked the drugs and sold them as casually as fresh produce or hardware items. It was possible also to mail order a dose of heroin or morphine. 2 Neither the importation nor the manufacture of these drugs was restricted. Since these opiates were addictive and used so widely (one New England pharmacist in a town of 10,000 sold three hundred pounds of opium a year), America obviously had a drug problem.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, reformists in the Progressive movement who labored to eradicate America's social ills began to consider the need for some form of regulation. Three factors can be identified as fostering a change in public opinion. First, as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States acquired the Philippine Islands and inherited a loose system for licensing addicts and supplying them with legal opium. If the United States was truly going to civilize and extend Western culture, the problem of narcotics addiction had to be brought under control.

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