A history of drugs and alcohol in the united states



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The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937

Marijuana and hashish come from the hemp plant, cannabis sativa. The naturally-grown plant is a mild hallucinogen used to alter consciousness. Early use of the plant in the U.S. was not, however, for recreational purposes. Instead, it was used to make paper and sturdy garments, such as canvass (Sloman 1979). Pharmaceutical companies, such as Parke Davis and Squibb, used it to treat numerous illnesses, such as asthma, gout, tetanus, cholera, and some forms of mental illness. Countries such as Poland, Russia, and Lithuania also used the cannabis plant in a similar fashion. Slowly, exploration of the drug’s mood-altering qualities emerged, some of which were documented in literary magazines by a brilliant young writer named Fitz Hugh Ludlow (Sloman 1979). In a Putnams Monthly publication, Ludlow wrote:

In returning from the world of hasheesh, I bring with me many and diverse memories. The echoes of a sublime rapture which thrilled and vibrated on the very edge of pain; of Promethean agonies which wrapt the soul like a mantle of fire; of voluptuous delirium which suffused the body with a blush of exquisite languor -- all are mine (Ludlow, 1856: 48)

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Use of the cannabis plant for recreational purposes was already known to Mexican’s, who idolized the weed in song, dance and other cultural customs. When translated, for example, the famous song Mexican folk song– “La Cucaracha” (which is often taught in beginning Spanish classes) highlights marijuana’s effects:

The cockroach, the cockroach

Now cannot walk

Because he does not have, because he does not have

Marijuana to smoke. (Sloman 1979: 29).

Mexican use of marijuana would become an important factor in U.S. drug control as immigrants migrated to the U.S. to fill the Southwest labor pool during World War I (check this Tammy). Later, as the Great Depression took hold, the cultural custom of marijuana smoking would be used to remove Mexican’s from the labor force so that White Americans could enjoy fuller employment.

Use of cannabis, especially marijuana, showed up first in the U.S, among blacks in the South and social outcasts, such as prostitutes, pimps, and other members of the criminal class– most of which were White. Since the recreational use of marijuana was first associated with minority group members or “deviants,” its stigma took hold early on. This stigma was exacerbated when the medical profession began to abandon its use in treating the conditions described above. The paragraphs below review the numerous factors that resulted in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the first federal legislation controlling all cannabis products.

Culture Conflict in the Depression-Era South

Experts (Musto 1999; Sloman 1979; Grinspoon 1997) have pointed to two different cultural phenomena that brought the marijuana issue to national attention and were driving forces behind control policies. The first was a culture clash between the customs of Mexican immigrants and white Americans. While at one level this dissension was cultural in nature, at another, it was about economics and politics. The second cultural factor would be the connection between jazz music, a “deviant” art form favored by outcasts, and marijuana.

The Pre-imminent Drug Czar. Resolution of these two cultural issues for mainstream White America was entrusted to Harry J. Anslinger. He took Levi Nutt’s place at the Narcotics Division of Prohibition Unit and became acting commissioner of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. It could be argued, that Anslinger has been the most dominant figure in U.S. drug policy history. As shown in Table 1, he was the nation’s point person on drugs under five different presidents or for more than 40 years.

Mexicans, Marijuana, and Labor. Originally, Mexicans migrated to the U.S. to fill jobs left vacant by soldiers fighting numerous wars during the late 1800s and early 1900s. After WWI, the Depression hit and unemployment skyrocketed. Whites in the south, especially in the southwestern states such as Texas, began to complain that Mexican workers were an undesired labor pool, competing with them for scarce jobs. Southern Congressman rushed to construct a “Mexican labor” problem and began to lobby their peers and put pressure on Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt to do something about it.

The cultural custom of marijuana smoking became the mechanism to address the “Mexican labor” problem. Congressman from the South pressured Harry Anslinger to find a quick resolution. The hope was that a federal law curtailing marijuana smoking remove Mexicans from the work force and free up jobs for whites. Early on, however, Anslinger saw little need for this to be a federal issue and tried, instead, to get the states to adopt their own laws via the Uniform State Narcotics Act of 1932 (see Table 1. And Musto 1999; Sloman 1979).

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Stories continued to be circulated by wealthy businessmen, such as William Randolph Hearst (owner of many communications outlets). They told of rowdy and “terrible” acts engaged in by Mexican marijuana smokers. Such stories caught Anslinger’s ear and began to change his mind on marijuana. After much regret and hesitation, Anslinger jumped on board the movement toward federal legislation.

Having witnessed the successful use of racial stereotypes to drum up support for the Harrison Narcotics Act, Anslinger adopted similar tactics to campaign Congress (Musto 1999; Sloman 1979; Grinspoon 1997). He was able to secure some support for marijuana control. However, many Congressman remained unmoved due to Anslinger and company’s failure to demonstrate that the marijuana problem was little more than a local issue for states like Texas to reconcile. Evidence of widespread public health consequences from the drug, however, was no where to be found.

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It was with the discovery of marijuana use in the jazz music scene that concerns started to escalate about the prevalence of health problems related to marijuana use. The second cultural phenomena to facilitate marijuana control, therefore, was the subculture of jazz music and marijuana use. The scene was comprised of diverse U.S. citizens, considered social outcasts (blacks, musicians, sexual deviants and common criminals) in major metropolitan areas such as Harlem and New Orleans. While the association with drug and alcohol “abuse” with crime in the U.S. was now firmly in place, the subculture of jazz and marijuana would mark one of the first connections between a genre of music and drugs. This link has persisted throughout time and can currently be seen in drug control policies related to electronic dance music (e.g., techno, house and trance--see below).

Sloman (1979) maintains the federal obsession with the jazz subculture struck a familiar chord of associating musicians with deviance. Early jazz stars, e.g., Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow and Cab Calloway, endorsed the marijuana experience and thus solidified the use of marijuana as a fundamental part of the subculture. For them, marijuana was seen as a great psychic equalizer that could confer status and dignity on an outsider while calming depression (Courtwright 2001b; Sloman 1979; Grinspoon 1997). In addition, participants viewed jazz and marijuana as protests against suffering and oppression, especially that experienced by black Americans. Soon, the jazz subculture developed an entire argot– or language- around marijuana. It found blatant reference in songs, which were used to promote solidarity.

An indication of Anslinger’s campaign against the jazz subculture was a file he maintained called “marijuana and musicians.” He made special notation every time a marijuana case involved someone on the jazz music scene. Sloman (1979: 135) noted:

“The battle between the Bureau and the jazz world first surfaced in February 1938, when two Mexicans were arrested in Minneapolis and charged with violation of the Tax Act by growing and distributing $5,000 worth of marijuana. The arrest prompted a statement by Joseph Bell, District supervisor for the Bureau, linking swing music, the big apple dance, and jam sessions to the increase in the use of the drug. So as jazz music and swing dancing rose in popular culture, so did the perceived use of marijuana. The three things were seen as inseparable by the moral entrepreneurs.

The Public Health Campaign or Anslinger’s “Gore” File on Marijuana.

With two major pieces of drug and alcohol legislation (HNA of 1914 and Prohibition) now on the books, the American public was growing accustomed to the idea of governmental control and the anti-drugs quests of moral entrepreneurs. So as stories started to spread about marijuana use traveling from deviant subcultures into white America, support for federal control mounted.



Gateway Drug- a less harmful substance (e.g., alcohol or marijuana) considered to lead to frequent use of more harmful drugs like cocaine and heroin.

Two other public health issues would boost support for this effort. They are the growth in marijuana use during Prohibition and the designation by Anslinger and cronies that marijuana was a “gateway” drug to other, more dangerous substances.

These public health concerns, in addition to the increased association of marijuana with crime and violence, became a what Sloman (1979) calls a “Gore” file, a script used by moral entrepreneurs to preach about the gory details of marijuana’s horrors, specifically its link to violent crime. The “Gore” file was assembled with outrageous and largely unfounded stories of the health consequences associated with marijuana use, which were refuted by famous scientific studies such as the La Guardia report (Grinspoon 1997; Sloman 1979).

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Nevertheless, given all of these factors, the Marijuana Tax Act became law on October 1, 1937 (Musto 1999). Like the Harrison act before it, the Marijuana Tax Act was largely a revenue measure that required all involved with the drug to secure a stamp from the federal government in order to sell or purchase it. Of course, very few of the stamps were allocated by the Feds in an attempt to eliminate the trade. Jurisdiction over the law was held at Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Counter-culture and Drug Control in the 1960s and 1970s.

After the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, drug control in the United States entered a period of unprecedented restriction. Harsh enforcement of the nation’s drug laws followed, due largely to Anslinger’s efforts. New to the scene were mandatory minimum criminal penalties for drug offenses via the Boggs Act, which President Truman signed in 1951. A few years later at Anslinger’s urging, President Eisenhower broadened this law via the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 (see Table 1). It increased penalties for the sale and possession of marijuana and heroin, including the death penalty for the sale of opium by someone over 18 years of age to someone younger (Brecher 1972: Musto 1999).

From the start, these laws were disliked by the American public. Soon, Anslinger’s relentless pursuit of drug users and sellers fell out of favor and there was little evidence it impacted drug use in the expected fashion (Musto 1999; Sloman 1979; Courtwright 2001b). Add to this the growing influence of the National Institute of Mental Health and other such anti-FBN forces that opposed harsh drug laws, and the country would soon witness a brief, but pronounced, shift toward a more medical approach to drug control.

Initiated under President Kennedy, this medical model would include an empathetic focus on the addictive nature of drugs and would recommend education and treatment (Massing 1998). The United States would, subsequently, experience a brief period of time where drug control policy was not considered an all-out war. For example, President Johnson would pass three bills, i.e., Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963, Drug Abuse Control Amendment of 1965, and the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 1966 (see Table 1) extending mental health classifications of addiction and education and treatment for addicts (Musto 1999; Brecher 1972). The 1960s and 70s would, for the most part, put into place many laws consistent with the medical approach. The exception would be President Nixon’s bifurcated strategy featuring both supply and demand reduction tactics (see more below).

Supply Reduction- anti-drug policies that attempt to halt the manufacturing, distribution and sale of illicit drugs. Examples include arrests for drug selling.
Demand Reduction- anti-drug policies that attempt to curtail people’s desires to use drugs. Examples include educational programs like D.A.R.E.

Despite the shift in policy, the upswing in drug use that had started in the 1950s, rose even more dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. No longer confined to stigmatized groups (e.g., black heroin addicts, marijuana smokers in the jazz community, or Mexican immigrants), the American public, including the white middle-class, continued consuming many different drugs.

Over time, conservatives have been quick to conclude this as a failure of the medical model. However, the paragraphs below illustrate that a major social and cultural change in the U.S. change would also play a role in the growth of drug use in the second half of the 20th century.

Social Unrest and Counter Culture in the 1960s.

In the 1960s, white middle-class youths, were experimenting with drugs, including marijuana, causing wide public concern (Gitlin 1987). Some of the new interest in drug use has been explained by the intolerance toward it in preceding decades. Another explanation was the Baby Boom’s discontent with the world around them, e.g., the Vietnam war, social injustice, and repressive government control. In fact, the 1960s dramatic rise in drug use is a good example of the interplay between cultural, social, and public health factors (see Table 2 for more on this point).


Fallout from the Vietnam War and civil rights (e.g., by race and gender) concerns fueled a cultural revolution and the emergence of a fascinating subculture called the “Hippies.” Hippies were skeptical of government. They sought to free themselves from society’s alienating norms by embracing the ideals of adhesive love, peace and justice (Gitlin 1987). Many youth left their working-class homes, where their parents and community members had resisted the civil rights movement. Being alienated from their towns and considered communists, these youth found it easy to side with the anti-war movement and join the hippy subculture.

Drugs helped secure the freedom for which they longed. By the 1960s, marijuana had moved from black and Hispanic, jazz-minded enclaves to the white middle class (Gitlin 1987). The drug’s ability to open minds to new understandings and philosophies fit perfectly with the social movement embraced by the Hippies. Popular music and literature gave their message against what was perceived to be an unfair government and unequal society. For example, music of the 1960s was filled with tales of oppression and liberation, in addition to drugs. Jimi Hendrix released a song titled “If 6 was 9” that described his oppression: “White collared conservative flashing down the street/Pointing their plastic finger at me/They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die...Go on Mr. business man/You can’t dress like me.” The country had seen such a phenomenon before with the jazz subculture of the 1930s.

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Marijuana was not the only drug to have this effect. Others did as well, including a potent new hallucinogen, LSD. Users of LSD experienced mystical effects that opened their minds to things not previously considered. Drug gurus, such as Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, began extolling its use. They declared drugs a form of resistance against the oppressive U.S. government and encouraged college students to “tune, turn on and drop out” (Gitlin 1987; Sloman 1979).

Thus, the 1960s became a period associated with widespread drug experimentation, which accompanied an unpopular war and massive social change. Parental alarm about children’s drug use began to swell. Anti-drug proponents, conservatives at the time, took to the streets proclaiming marijuana a “gateway” to more dangerous drug use (e.g., heroin addiction).

Use and addiction to marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, and heroin were also prevalent among soldiers in the Vietnam war (Grinspoon 1997; Steinbeck 97), especially heroin addiction. This concerned President Johnson. However, President Nixon would emerge as the most vehement campaigner against drug abuse (Gitlin 1987). The White House was worried that a drug-addicted military would be unable to achieve its goals in Southeast Asia. Concerns such as these, as we have shown above, were also present during other wars (see Table 2).

President Nixon: From “tolerance” in the 1960s to renewed repression by the 1970s.

While his public rhetoric portrayed him as a “law and order” president, one tough on the drug problem, President Nixon’s contributions were fairly even between treatment and law enforcement. Table 1 illustrates this point. A partial explanation for this bifurcated strategy stems from the influence of Nixon’s advisors. Egil “Bud” Krough was brought on board to deal with the domestic crime problem, while Dr. Jerome Jaffe (who had gained recognition in drug treatment during the Kennedy and Johnson years) would serve as point person on treatment, especially of heroin addiction. Krogh took charge of domestic law enforcement, seeking to break crime syndicates responsible for drug dealing. Soon, his campaign would take him abroad and into the quagmire of international supply reduction. Dr. Jaffee, on the other hand, would coordinate the administration’s treatment initiative, which invested heavily in methadone maintenance to combat heroin addiction (see the Methadone Control Act of 1973 and others on Table 1). Since, Jaffee was considered the drug expert while Krogh’s position was more a crime-oriented, we designate Jaffe as Nixon’s “drug czar,” although both played an important role (see Massing 1998 for more about Krogh and Jaffee).

Other reasons for Nixon’s dual approach had to do with his own personal beliefs versus what the public desired. Privately, Nixon despised drug addicts and talked badly about them and those who lobbied for their interests (Massing 1998). For example, he believed that the marijuana lobby was a Jewish and homosexual agenda, two groups he disliked (CSDP 2002). In tapes from Oval Office conversations with drug advisors, Nixon stated “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?” About homosexuals, Nixon stated “You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us” (Oval Office Tapes, 1971).

Criminal Model- treats drug use and abuse as a criminal problem requiring formal legal punishment

Medical Model- treats drug use and abuse as medical or health problem requiring treatment instead of punishment.

Publicly, however, Nixon stayed silent about his biases and conveyed a tough stance on drugs, since the public was increasingly favoring law enforcement. To appease them, Nixon talked of drugs as “public enemy number 1." However, even though the public supported drug control via law enforcement, they did not favor the long mandatory minimum sentences for possession of small amounts of marijuana, a strategy utilized by Anslinger in the 1940s and 1950s. Given public sentiment and the approaches of past administrations, Nixon found himself lodged between the medical and criminal models of drug control.

For example, he signed four major pieces of drug policy into law, making him one of the most active on the issue. The Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act of 1972 and the Methadone Control Act of 1973 were more concerned with the treatment of addiction, remaining consistent with the previous administration’s more “medical” approach. On the other hand, the Heroin Trafficking Act of 1973 would establish new and harsher penalties for heroin distribution.

Nixon’s biggest contribution to drug control policy, however, was the massive Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA of 1970). It contained three major provisions and numerous minor terms. First, it replaced all existing federal laws on controlled substances. For example, the Harrison Narcotics Act and the Marijuana Tax Act were subsumed into the new law. Second, it established a classification system of “controlled” substances, i.e., drugs that required jurisdiction by the Federal government. Drugs were placed in one of five schedules based on their potential for abuse, known harmfulness, and medical value. The system was created to not only deal with addiction-related issues but also economic ones stemming from the diversion of drugs from legal markets (pharmaceutical companies and doctors offices) to illegal ones. Drug diversion was a critical concern for the Nixon administration (see Table 2). The scheduling of drugs outlined in the CSA of 1970 still guides federal drug control today.

Drug Diversion- refers to the deflection of legal drugs, used in medical care, to illegal markets for improper use.

Third, the new law created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which would replace the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and act as the central agency for drug enforcement in the U.S. The DEA’s charge would be to set and enforce penalties according to the drug schedule. Today, the DEA continues to control how drugs are scheduled. This point is critical in determining new drug laws, penalties, and reforms (see below and Table 3).



Marijuana Decriminalization- a policy that significantly lessons the penalty for marijuana possession, reclassifying it as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, not a prison or jail term.

President Carter and Peter Bourne: Renewed Tolerance in late 1970s

During the mid to late 1970's, drug policy visibly softened under President Carter. While Carter signed fewer laws than Nixon (see Table 1), his administration spoke out publicly in support of more lenient policies, including marijuana decriminalization. This was a dramatic departure from Nixon’s rhetoric.

In a short period of time, many states moved to decriminalize marijuana. It is important to point out this was the only time in U.S. history, since passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, that use of marijuana was decriminalized or sanctioned with fines rather than arrests and incarceration.

The Carter administration, i.e., the president and his drug experts, believed in the concept of `responsible use' of drugs, that people could use them without becoming addicted or experiencing other problems. President Carter relied heavily on his advisors, including his point person Dr. Peter Bourne, who advocated a more medical approach to the drug problem. In addition, the growing political influence of marijuana law reform groups, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), pressed the administration successfully for more lenient policies.

Unfortunately, marijuana and other drug use escalated considerably in the late 1970s. In fact, official data continue to show this period as having some of the highest rates of illicit drug use of all time (Johnston, O’Malley and Bachman 2003a; 2003b). Use also increased in adolescents despite the fact that drugs never were legal or decriminalized for that age group. For example, the Johnston, O’Malley and Bachman (2003a) data show that, among 12th graders, about 47% reported using marijuana at least once in their lifetimes in 1975, but that figure increased to 60% by 1979. Please see Chapter X for more on the trends in U.S. drug use.

This was not good news for President Carter and his drug experts. Cocaine use among this group also increased dramatically and kept doing so through President Reagan’s first term (1980-1984). The administration’s credibility on the drug issue worsened when Dr. Peter Bourne fell into controversy in 1978. Bourne had prescribed a painkiller, methaqualone, for an aide’s pain and illness. He made out the prescription to a fictitious name in order to protect the aide’s identity (as is often done). Within a few days, this prescription would become a national scandal. The situation worsened when a Washington Post story broke that Bourne had snorted cocaine at a NORML party. The public was not surprised by this since Bourne had, a few years earlier, publicly stated his beliefs that cocaine was not a dangerous drug (Musto 1999). Bourne resigned shortly thereafter.

Given the Bourne scandal and rising rates of drug use, President Carter could no longer appear “soft” on the drug issue. Carter backed off on Congressional requests to decriminalize marijuana. This represents an important landmark in drug history, for the Carter years earmarked the period of highest drug tolerance in the U.S.

Afterwards, the punitive law enforcement model would take over and give birth to a war on drugs during the Reagan/Bush era. Leading the call for the punitive shift, were parents groups, like the National Federation of Parents (NFP), who began to object to the rampant use of drugs, especially marijuana, among their children. In the early 1980's the `parents' anti-drug movement began. Because of the perceived failure of lenient drug policies under medical models, pressure grew at national and local levels for restrictive drug policies. A huge national wave of high quality research, grassroots prevention organizations, and tightening of drug laws began.

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