drug wars

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A Social History of America's Most Popular Drugs



First synthesized in 1887, the stimulant amphetamine became popular in 1920s in the medical community, where it was used for raising blood pressure, enlarging the nasal passages, and stimulating the central nervous system. Abuse of the drug began during the 1930s, when it was marketed under the name Benzedrine and sold in an over-the-counter inhaler. During World War II, amphetamines were widely distributed to soldiers to combat fatigue and improve both mood and endurance, and after the war physicians began to prescribe amphetamines to fight depression. As legal usage of amphetamines increased, a black market emerged. Common users of illicit amphetamines included truck drivers on long commutes and athletes looking for better performance. Students referred to the drug as "pep pills" and used them to aid in studying.

The earliest references to the practice of injecting amphetamines (particularly methamphetamine) occurred during the 1950s, but the practice did not spread until the 1960s(1). In 1962 a crackdown on San Francisco pharmacies which sold injectable amphetamines drew national attention to the problem of amphetamine "mainlining." and led to the emergence of underground production facilities referred to as "speed labs"(2). While many of these labs, primarily located on the West Coast, were small "Mom and Pop" operations, the amphetamine trade was historically dominated by outlaw motorcycle groups(3). Amphetamine use began to decline in the 1970s, due to increased public awareness of its dangers, as well as FDA scheduling of the drug(4).

During the 1990s, the popularity of crystal methamphetamine, a smokable form of methamphetamine commonly referred to as "ice", began to increase in the United States. In addition to the traditional local "mom and pop" labs, in 1995 Mexico-based trafficking groups began to enter the methamphetamine market and now dominate the trade(5). In the 1990s, clandestine "Mom and Pop" labs have sprung up throughout the Midwestern United States, and as a result the Mexican traffickers have also targeted the region. There are two current basic profiles of methamphetamine users: students (both high school and college) and white, blue-collar and unemployed persons in their 20s and 30s(6).

· The pharmacology of methamphetamine


Cocaine is derived from the coca plant native to the Andean highlands of South America. Pure cocaine was first isolated in the mid-nineteenth century, but its effects weren't recognized in the medical world until the 1880s. In 1883, Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt, a German army physician, prescribed cocaine to Bavarian soldiers during training to help reduce fatigue(7). In July, 1884, Sigmund Freud published Uber Coca, a hymn of praise to the drug which, along with "Vin Mariani," a coca wine manufactured by a Corsican chemist, helped lead to the drug's popularization in Europe. In 1886 John Pemberton of Atlanta, Georgia began to market "Coca-Cola," a syrup derived from coca leaves and African kola nuts. The same year Dr. William Alexander Hammond, the Surgeon-General of the U.S. Army endorsed the medical use of cocaine at a meeting of the New York Neurological Society(8). Throughout the early 1900s unregulated medicinal "tonics" were sold containing ingredients including cocaine and opium(9). By 1902 there were an estimated 200,000 cocaine addicts in the United States, and by 1907, U.S. coca leaf imports were three times their 1900 levels(10). Hundreds of early Hollywood silent films depicted scenes of drug use and trafficking(11).

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act outlawed cocaine in the United States and usage declined throughout the 1940s through the 1960s(12). In the 1970s cocaine regained popularity as a recreational drug and was glamorized in the U.S. popular media. Articles from the time proclaimed cocaine as non-addictive. The drug was viewed as harmless until the 1985 emergence of crack.

Cocaine usage peaked in the United States 1982 with 10.4 million users. The 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that cocaine was used by 3.8 million Americans. As of 1999, Colombiaremained the world's leading producer of cocaine, producing three quarters of the world's annual yield(13).

· The pharmacology of cocaine


Crack cocaine is a free-based form of cocaine made by cooking cocaine powder, water, and baking soda until it forms a solid that can be broken down and sold in individual "rocks." Crack cocaine first appeared in large cities such as LA, Miami, and NY around 1985. Where cocaine was expensive to purchase, crack could be bought at affordable prices and became prevalent in working class and poorer neighborhoods. Crack cocaine was highlighted by the media in the controversy surrounding the 1985 death of college basketball star Len Bias, who at the time was thought to have died from an overdose of crack cocaine (although later it was discovered that Bias had in fact overdosed on powder cocaine).

In 1986 and 1988, as the public furor surrounding crack increased, Congress imposed mandatory sentencing laws which dramatically increased the penalties for possessing or trafficking in crack, which was perceived to be a much more serious problem than powder cocaine. The ratio between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses was set at 100 to 1. As a result, a low level crack dealer may be subject to harsher penalties than a higher level powder cocaine dealer.

In 1994 the United States Sentencing Commission began studying the effects of these differing penalties, and found that the harsher sentences for crack cocaine were imposed primarily on black citizens. A study revealed that while almost 2/3 of crack users in the US were white or Hispanic, 84.5% of those convicted for crack possession were black, while 10.3% were white and 5.2% were Hispanic. Similarly, of those convicted for crack trafficking in 1994, 88.3% were black, while 4.1% were white and 7.1% were Hispanic. The statistics for those convicted of powder cocaine offenses were much more racially mixed. The Sentencing Commission concluded that the dramatic difference in penalties, combined with the racial disparity in enforcement, resulted in black men and women serving longer prison sentences than those of other ethnicities. In 1995 the US Sentencing Commission recommended eliminating this disparity in a report to Congress; however both Congress and the Clinton administration rejected the recommendation.

· Read the interview with Michael Gelacek, former Vice Chairman of the Sentencing Commission. Gelacek discusses the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.


LSD was accidentally discovered and ingested by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist working for Sandoz Laboratories, who found himself embarking on the first LSD "trip" in history in 1943. Soon after Hofmann's initial experimentation with LSD, he provided samples of the drug to psychiatrists at the University of Zurich for further testing into possible uses. In the 1950s, the U.S. military and CIA researched LSD as a possible "truth drug," which could be used for brainwashing or inducing prisoners to talk. However, after military interest in LSD waned in favor of other drugs, the psychiatric community began to research and issue reports on the drug's possible therapeutic capabilities for psychotic, epileptic, and depressed patients.

Non-therapeutic use of LSD increased throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. Among the first groups to use LSD recreationally were research study participants, physicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals who later distributed the drug among their friends. Prior to 1962, LSD was available only on a small scale to those who had connections in the medical field, as all the LSD was produced by Sandoz Laboratories, in Basel Switzerland, and then distributed to health professionals. However, the drug was not difficult to produce in a chemical laboratory. The formula could be purchased for 50 cents from the US patent office, and the LSD itself could be stored inside blotting paper. Soon a black market for LSD in the US emerged.

In 1966 the Grunsky Bill was passed by Congress, which prohibited the possession, manufacturing, sale and importation of LSD. Illegal manufacturing of LSD continued despite the new law, but soon LSD users experienced growing problems with contaminated or adulterated LSD produced by amateur chemists and not of the same quality as that produced by Sandoz..

Dr. Timothy Leary, who had earlier conducted experiments with hallucinogenic psilocybin was introduced to LSD in 1961. His personal use of the drug helped lead to his dismissal from a teaching position at Harvard in 1963. Writers such as Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters were known for their use of LSD, and the 1967 "Summer of Love" in San Francisco linked the drug to counterculture music and the philosophy of "sex, drugs and rock and roll"(14).

While use of LSD declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the drug has made a resurgence in the 1990s, particularly in the rave subculture. It is typically manufactured in clandestine laboratories in Northern California, and it is believed that a limited number of chemists manufacture nearly all available LSD, although at a potency almost ninety percent weaker than the typical dose of the 1960s(15).

· The pharmacology of LSD


Marijuana cultivation began in the United States around 1600 with the Jamestown settlers, who began growing the cannabis sativa or hemp plant for its unusually strong fiber that was used to make rope, sails, and clothing. Until after the Civil War, marijuana was a source of major revenue for the United States. During the 19th century marijuana plantations flourished in Mississippi, Georgia, California, South Carolina, Nebraska, New York, and Kentucky. Also during this period, smoking hashish, a stronger preparation of marijuana derived from the dried resin of the plant, was popular throughout France and to a lesser degree in the US.

Between 1850 and 1937 marijuana was widely used throughout United States as a medicinal drug and could easily be purchased in pharmacies and general stores. Recreational use was limited in the US until after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when an influx of Mexican immigrants introduced the habit. The Volstead Act of 1920, which raised the price of alcohol in the United States, positioned marijuana as an attractive alternative and led to an increase in use of the drug. "Tea pads," where a person could purchase marijuana for 25 cents or less, began appearing in cities across the United States, particularly as part of the black "hepster" jazz culture. By 1930 it was reported that there were at least 500 of these "tea pads" in New York City alone. During the Great Depression as unemployment increased, resentment and fear of the Mexican immigrants became connected to marijuana use. Numerous research studies linked marijuana use by lower class communities with crime and violence. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which criminalized the drug. From 1951 to 1956 stricter sentencing laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. In the 1950s the beatniks appropriated the use of marijuana from the black hepsters and the drug moved into middle-class white America in the 1960s.

The increasing use of marijuana by mainstream white Americans helped lead to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, under which mandatory penalties for drug offenses were repealed by Congress and marijuana was categorized separately from other narcotics. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded the same year. In the late 1970s, President Carter's administration, including his assistant for drug policy, Dr. Peter Bourne, pushed for decriminalization of marijuana, with the president himself asking Congress to abolish federal criminal penalties for those caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. A grassroots parents' movement responded by lobbying for stricter regulations and was instrumental in changing public attitudes. In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, reinstating mandatory minimums and raising federal penalties for possession and distribution. In 1996, California enacted Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana use for people suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses and a similar bill was passed in Arizona the same year. Current domestic marijuana cultivation trends are towards indoor production due to law enforcement efforts to curtail outdoor cultivation. The majority of foreign marijuana is supplied by trafficking organizations in Mexico, although countries in the Far East, such as Thailand and Cambodia, also supply the United States.

· The pharmacology of marijuana

Opium & Heroin

Opiates were popular in the United States throughout the 19th century, particularly among women(16). Tonics and elixirs containing opium were readily available in drugstores, and doctors commonly prescribed opiates for upper and middle class women suffering from neurasthenia and other "female problems." Chinese laborers who came to work on U.S. railroads in the 1850s and 1860s brought with them the practice of opium smoking. While a San Francisco city ordinance passed in 1875 banned smoking opium within city limits, by the turn of the century opium dens were commonplace throughout the nation(17). In the l890s, tabloids owned by William Randolph Hearst published stories of white women being seduced by Chinese men and their opium to invoke fear of the "Yellow Peril." (18).

The synthesis of morphine by Friedrich Sertuerner of Germany in 1803 led physicians to label the drug as "God's own medicine" for its reliability, long-lasting effects, and safety(19). The mid-nineteenth century invention of the hypodermic syringe and the use of injectable morphine as a pain reliever during the American Civil War led to the first wave of morphine addiction. In 1895, Heinrich Dreser, working for the Bayer Company in Germany, synthesized heroin. Bayer began to market the drug in 1898. In the early 1900s heroin was seen as a potential solution to the increasing problem of morphine addiction, and the philanthropic St. James Society mounted a campaign to mail free samples of heroin to morphine addicts. Heroin addiction grew, particularly in northern industrial slums.

In the second major wave of American opiate addiction, heroin was integrated into the new cultural identity of the "hipster"(20), first through the Harlem jazz scene in the 1930s and 1940s and then through the Beatnik subculture of the 1950s. During this period the major supply of heroin entering the U.S. came through the "French Connection"--a collaboration between Corsican gangsters in Marseille and the Sicilian Mafia. In April 1971, Congressman Robert Steele (R-CT) investigated reports of rampant heroin abuse among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. His fact-finding mission estimated an addiction rate of 10 to 15%. This alarming statistic, combined with emerging evidence linking heroin addiction to crime, pushed the heroin problem to the front of Nixon's drug policy agenda.

Improvements in purity of street heroin in the 1980s and 1990s led to the potential of the drug being effectively smoked and snorted(21). Usage of heroin increased significantly in the 1990s. Historically the majority of the drug entered the U.S. through the French Connection or the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos), however since 1993 South American drug organizations have been expanding from the cocaine market into the heroin market.

· The pharmacology of opium & heroin

· For a more detailed history of opiun and heroin, see FRONTLINE's timeline on the "Opium Kings" web site.


Brecher, Edward M., and the editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana--including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Boston: Little Brown, 1972.

Jonnes, Jill. Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America's Romance with Illegal Drugs. NY: Scribner, 1996.

Kuhn, Cynthia, Swartzwelder, Scott and Wilson, Wilkie. Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. New York: Norton, 1998.

Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, Third Ed. New York: Yale UP, 1999

(1) Licit and Illicit Drugs, 282.
(2) Licit and Illicit Drugs, 282.
(3) www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/meth.htm
(4) www.acnp.org/G4/GN401000166/CH162.htm
(5) www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/meth.htm
(6) www.kci.org/meth_info/faq_meth.htm
(7)Licit and Illicit Drugs, 272.
(8) Hep Cats, 22.
(9) Buzzed, 198., www.cocaineaddiction.com/cocaine_hist.html
(10) Hep Cats, 25, 33.
(11) Hep Cats, 60., www.cocaineaddiction.com/cocaine_hist.html
(12) Licit and Illicit Drugs, 276.
(13) www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/cocaine.htm
(14) Hep Cats, 234.
(15) www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/lsd.htm
(16) Licit and Illicit Drugs, 17, HC, 18.
(17) Hep Cats 30.
(18) www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/etc/history.html
(19) www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/heroin/etc/history.html
(20) Hep Cats, Ch. 7
(21) www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/heroin.htm

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