All Hopped Up

Drugs in America

Advertisement for cocaine toothache drops, 1885.

Advertisement for cocaine toothache drops, 1885.

This month, recreational marijuana use became legal under state law in Washington and Colorado. Pot smokers lit up in public while the U.S. Attorney General warned that the stuff is still illegal under federal law, and that the government is obligated to prosecute offenders. All of which got us wondering, when did the government first start regulating drugs? Turns out, marijuana, heroin, opium, and plenty of other substances were all perfectly legal until the early 20th century. In fact, the “wonder drug” cocaine was first touted as a cure for morphine addiction!

So on this episode of BackStory, we’re looking at the history of drugs in America: who’s bought them, who’s sold them, and how Americans have distinguished between licit and illicit use. From anxiety over opium dens in 1870s San Francisco to dodgy patent medicines to “Just Say No,” we’ll look at what Americans have feared, and valued, about drugs.

Please help us shape this show! Have an opinion about legalizing marijuana? What did you make of DARE as a middle schooler? How has the image of the “typical drug addict” changed in your lifetime? Share your thoughts, questions, and stories with us below.


Comments (3)

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  1. Bo Blackburn

    In the movie Dazed and Confused (great historical record that it is), one character informs the others that the Founding Fathers loved to grow and smoke marijuana. He eulogizes on George Washington rolling a fat joint as Martha served supper. I know they grew hemp as a crop for rope and cloth. I am from Kentucky which had a thriving hemp industry. I have always heard that it was shut down by forces wanting to make cotton the predominate textile crop in our country. Is there truth to the idea that the cotton industry start the war on marijuana in the US?

  2. Rebecca

    I would be more than happy to record a call with you regarding drugs/drug use; psychopharmacology is one of my favorite topics! Please feel free to get in touch with me, I’d love to help however I might be able.

  3. Andrew R.

    I’d be curious to hear about the relationship between race and laws regarding drugs. In contemporary times, I think it’s played out in the distinction between crack and cocaine, and in the 20th century, anti-Mexican sentiment was part of the reason for the criminalization of cannabis.