A history of drugs and alcohol in the united states



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Drug Use and Intolerance at the End of the 20th Century

Discussions about social phenomena and policy during the last two decades of the 20th century must begin with the significant cultural shift that took place during that time. This change would be both ideological and social-policy-oriented. It featured the demise of Liberalism and the birth of Conservatism. The period of the “Great Society,” established by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, would give way to one of individual responsibility, which would privilege wealth and material accumulation over social justice. Gone was the notion that social programming was necessary to empower individuals toward better lives. In its place came conservatives, like Presidents Reagan and Bush, who viewed such programs as dysfunctional entitlements that encouraged sloth and deviance and, more importantly, stymied free market capitalism.



Zero Tolerance- is a drug policy principle that sets as its goal, no drug use of any kind or amount in the population. It is intolerant of any drug use.

Whereas the concepts of individual empowerment and rehabilitation would guide drugs and crime policies of the more liberal era of the 1960s and 1970s, the conservative era of the 1980s would favor intolerance, punishment, deprivation of individual freedom, and harsh stigma. Government rhetoric about “lenient” approaches to the drug problem would be replaced with a “zero tolerance” ethic across the board. In addition, whereas the more liberal era would view drug addiction as an illness or disease, the conservative era constructed it as a moral failing. Finally, the focus on individual demand would give way to international supply reduction as the pre-eminent weapon in the new war on drugs. The newer, conservative approach applied supply-side economic theory to the drug problem, i.e., the supply of goods and services (e.g., drugs) is what drives consumer (e.g. users and addicts) demand for them.

Most of today’s college students were born during the era of conservatism, while their parents, members of the Baby Boom, likely came of age under the more liberal era of the Great Society. An important objective of this chapter has been to help students understand the evolution of drug control policies as they emerge from various cultural, social, public health, economic, and political factors over the course of time. Today’s continued conservative approach– the War on Drugs– is an outgrowth of these phenomena. It should not be viewed as an independent entity, “just the way things are,” or immune to scrutiny or change. Since today’s student is tomorrow’s leader, he or she should be able to critically evaluate the current situation– from all angles– and use past experience to help promote a better future.

In the previous pages, we have showed that drug use has remained fairly resilient to both punitive policies and more liberal ones. At the beginning of the 1980s, drug use is high in many segments of society. Liberalism is claimed to be the cause of this problem. But will the conservatism of the Reagan/Bush all-out drug war fix this? Will other factors play a role? Let’s take a look.

Drug Use in the Early 1980s.

While Chapter X thoroughly discusses official estimates of drug use and abuse in the U.S. states over the course of time, it is important to mention that by the time President Reagan had taken office in 1981, teen drug use and older American’s abuse of drugs was quite high, causing alarm in many circles. For example, in 1981 the Monitoring the Future Study showed about 60% of all high school seniors had tried marijuana at least once, while 43% had used an illicit drug other than marijuana. Furthermore, about 32% of seniors reported having smoked pot in the past 30 days, making their drug use more recent and, consequently, perceived as more problematic (see Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman 2003a for more trends).

Drug use among America’s youth would drop significantly by the end of President Reagan’s administration, but all would not be rosy in the U.S. Abuse and addiction to drugs, not the casual use of drugs by teenagers, would continue unabated.

Critics have asserted that the Reagan administration focused too heavily on adolescent marijuana use and international supply reduction strategies to the neglect of older American’s abuse and addiction, especially to drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and the health-related consequences stemming therefrom, e.g., HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis (Massing 1998). The result would be continued heroin addiction, substantial increases in cocaine/crack abuse, and the spread of HIV. Are these criticisms valid? The following paragraphs review drug control policies under Presidents Reagan and Bush, two of the leading figures in the conservative era.

The Reagan’s: International Policing and the “Just Say No” Campaign.

President Reagan was confronted with the drug problem almost immediately upon taking office. In his face were more than 3,000 parents groups organized as a political lobby group entitled The National Federation of Parents for a Drug Free Youth (NFP). The NFP was worried about teenage drug use, especially that casual marijuana use would escalate into addiction to harder drugs. They subscribed to the Gateway theory and were alarmed at the rapid escalation of drug use in the 1970s. Thus, marijuana and other forms of causal drug use among children and teens, especially whites, became the primary focus during Reagan’s first term.

At the same time, victim’s rights groups and other anti-crime lobby groups gained influence after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s had, according to some, preoccupied government with the rights of offenders. They were troubled by high rates of crime and violence, especially in cities such as Miami where the drug trade flourished. Residents were worried they would experience widespread violence from South Florida’s drug trade as did Chicago during Prohibition and the reign of Al Capone. These anti-crime and victimization groups were also outraged over the widespread corruption of conventional businesses and local law enforcement due to the drug trade. This corruption and the growing power of foreign drug lords would get the President’s attention.

Experts such as Massing (1998) note that the growing power and wealth of international drug suppliers, and their ability to influence and corrupt legitimate business and social control agents, was what worried President Reagan most. He was enraged that foreign drug lords could make so much money on Americans. He was also disturbed by the drug lords’ ability to influence their own governments or to replace them outright.

Foreign drug lords’ accumulation of money and power exploded, as Chesupiuk (1999) notes, during the 1960s and 1970s when Americans demanded all types of drugs. While previous presidents (e.g,. Kennedy, Nixon) understood the international supply-side of the issue, Reagan’s administration would be the first to prioritize it in the fight against domestic drug use. The administration reasoned that eliminating or dramatically reducing the supply of illegal drugs into the U.S. would force individual drug use to drop by keeping prices too high. Like we mentioned above, this was perfectly within reason of supply-side economics.

Reagan’s selection of Carlton Turner as point person on drug policy also influenced his administration’s focus on international supply reduction as the pre-eminent tool in fighting the drug problem. Jerome Jaffe was still active in drug policy at the federal level when Turner was appointed. Turner bumped heads with him immediately. Like Nixon and Anslinger, Turner did not like drug users and thought their predicament was more a case of moral failing than a medical condition requiring treatment. He also did not believe in a difference between causal use and addiction, which helped justify the zero tolerance policy the Reagan administration would embrace.

***Photo #12 about here***

On the domestic front, Reagan would rely heavily on First Lady, Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign to appease parents groups and to balance out his international supply focus with a more domestic education/prevention campaign for youth. First Ladies usually take up a domestic issue during their spouse’s tenure in office. When she arrived at the White House, Nancy Reagan had no pet project, but she did come under early public scrutiny over her outlandish spending to redecorate the White House at the taxpayers’ expense (e.g., the china she ordered totaled more than $200,000 alone– see Massing 1998). After a speaking engagement at an anti-drug conference targeting white adolescent marijuana use, Nancy Reagan showed the American public a new face and quickly became the champion of one of the most popular drug prevention programs in history– “Just Say No.”

While the parents groups believed Turner was a good support of their positions, Turner himself was happy to turn over domestic prevention activities to the First Lady. He wanted to invest his time in law enforcement – domestic and international (Massing 1998). Ergo, Turner’s law enforcement campaign and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program would define the Reagan anti-drugs strategy.

This combined strategy of international supply reduction and domestic prevention among the youngest Americans showed promising results. Rates of causal drug use fell among youth during Reagan’s first four years and international supply reduction agencies, like the DEA and the U.S. Customs, office made large and impressive seizures of illegal drugs (Massing 1998; Chepesiuk 1999). The decline in casual drug use among teens by the mid 1980s quelled the concerns of many. However, indicators showed that drug abuse and addiction remained resilient and continued to thrive. Also, while agencies like the DEA basked in the limelight during the early 1980s after making heroic seizures, they were quick to note their inability to make a dent in the supply of illegal drugs entering the country.

America’s Second Cocaine Epidemic: Powder versus Crack

Things worsened dramatically with the entry of crack cocaine (a solidified and high potency version of powder cocaine) into the inner-city and a second epidemic of powder cocaine abuse in upper class segments of society by the mid-1980s. The explosion in these two forms of cocaine would surprise and frighten the American public, the Reagan administration, and Congress. Cocaine had not been a priority of drug control for many decades. Marijuana had taken center stage since the 1930s, with some attention to heroin and psychedelics along the way.

Cocaine re-emerged as a popular drug of choice during the 1970s, with use confined to the upper-class, celebrities, and fans of disco. Powder cocaine and freebase were rampant in posh nightclubs in major metropolitan areas. The drug fit perfectly with the ideology and symbolism of the conservative era: wealth and status. As an easy-to-conceal and odorless stimulant, users began snorting cocaine to extend their work day (e.g., traders on Wall Street), increase their efficiency, and party and dance into the early morning. The drug made them feel fabulous, for cocaine provides one of the most powerful and seductive euphorias of any controlled substance known to humankind.



Drug of Choice- a phrase used to describe an individual’s or group’s favorite drug at a specific moment in time.

This latter characteristic of cocaine would soon turn causal use into nasty cocaine binges, abuse, and addiction. The upper and middle-classes started experiencing widespread problems with the drug; loss of jobs, savings accounts, and family trust and increased health risks, such as overdose and cardiac arrest. In 1986, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from cardiac arrest after snorting a large amount of cocaine at a party the day after he signed a major contract with the Boston Celtics. Within two weeks, baseball star Don Rodgers was dead from the same.

***Photo #13 about here***

While powder cocaine use among the middle and upper-class was problematic, crack cocaine use among the inner-city poor was equally, if not more, troubling. President Reagan and Carlton Turner overlooked signs that a crack epidemic was brewing on inner-city streets (Massing 1998). They were obsessed with the international picture; foreign drug lords and their economic and political power.

Scholars continue to debate the origins of crack cocaine in the U.S. (Massing 1998; Chepesiuk 1999), but most agree the creation of a cheaper, more potent form (because it is smoked rather than inhaled) of cocaine was one of the best capitalist innovations in the 20th century. It dramatically increased cocaine sales by expanding the market of consumers to the lower class. People could purchase small pieces of crack, i.e., rocks, for as little as $5 each, while purchases of powder cocaine ran between $50-$100. Of course, no one bought and smoked just one rock. The crack high came on too quickly and disappeared too shortly to allow that. Users found themselves bingeing for hours and days, smoking up hundreds of dollars of the product in no time.

Open air drug market- refers to public, usually outdoors, locations where drugs are sold.

Binge- refers to using a lot of a substance—without interruption-- over a short to long period of time.

Another public health and crime factor arose with the crack trade that would force policy-makers to respond to it differently than its “fraternal twin” powder cocaine. This had to so with the violence and death that characterized crack sales. From a business standpoint, the cocaine powder and crack markets differed dramatically. First, powder consumers were largely middle and upper-class whites, while crack users were more often lower-class and members of minority groups. Their respective choices of cocaine can be explained largely by the price differential between the two drugs. Second, cocaine sales among the middle and upper-class took place behind closed doors and out of the view of law enforcement. Crack was a more publicly-sold commodity. Open-air drugs markets, staffed by sellers competing for a growing pool of consumers (eventually including many middle-class whites) dominated the urban landscape.

Young, inner-city males experiencing de-industrialization, unemployment, and cutbacks in social programming, gravitated to crack sales as a way to secure the very same materialist goals the conservative era touted for all (Anderson 1991; Wilson 1986). Dramatic competition over sensational profits motivated violence to protect or expand one’s share of the market. On a daily basis, newspapers and TV broadcasts reported homicides and assaults due to crack trafficking. The nation’s capital– Washington, DC– would move to center stage as having the highest murder rate in the country (cite your report here).

Congress and President Reagan responded with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Both increased funds for the supply-reduction effort and broadened mandatory minimum penalties for drug sales and possession. Time would show, however, that the two disparate cocaine-using populations would be treated very differently by law-makers. For example, middle and upper-class cocaine snorters would find themselves at expensive residential treatment programs funded by their employers’ insurance companies. Lower-class crack addicts would, on the contrary, find themselves behind bars due to cuts in public treatment slots and increased funding of military-type policing of the inner-city.

President George H. Bush and Drug Czar William Bennett. By 1988, Vice President and soon-to-be President George H. Bush would endorse legislation that would, to this date, separate the two cocaine-using populations and markets. The Omnibus Drug Abuse Act of 1988 would be the third federal law to expand mandatory minimum penalties for drug users and sellers and it would establish a 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine (see Table 1 and 2). Specifically, punishment for similar amounts of crack and powder cocaine were 100 times longer for crack.

During President Bush’s four years in office, the war on drugs would be, perhaps, the number domestic priority. The Iraqi War dominated his international agenda. The drugs and violence problems were of such great concern to the American public by this time that re-organization of Federal agencies was viewed as a necessary solution. Bush would establish the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)- a cabinet-level office that would report directly to the President. It would coordinate all federal drug control agencies and secure an operating budget for them via Congressional action. Comparable government re-organization had occurred (as indicated above and in Tables 1 and 2) with the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and with Nixon’s Comprehensive Substance Abuse Act.

The new law would also officially designate a “Drug Czar,” a federal government point person on drug control policy which was similar to the secretary positions of other cabinet offices (e.g., secretary of agriculture). President Bush’s choice for the drug czar position was William Bennett, a staunch conservative, previously at the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Education under President Reagan. Bennett was very much like Anslinger and Nixon in his ideology about the drug problem. However, unlike both of them, he loved the spotlight and sought every opportunity to publicly display his use of the bully-pulpit to shift the drug war in an even more punitive direction. Bennett campaigned that drug use was a moral failing, not a medical illness. He de-emphasized an already weak focus on prevention and treatment and strengthened domestic and international supply reduction strategies.

One last point is worth mentioning. It pertains to the exponential growth of the anti-drugs budget during the last two decades of the 20th century. For example, about 30 years ago (1974), President Nixon, the first to declare war on drugs, initiated a radial shift in U.S. drug policy by allocating about $750 million to fight illicit substance use. Fourteen years later, President George H. Bush, who is credited with defining our current war on drugs, raised that budget to more than $4.7 billion by 1988 (California Campaign for New Drug Policies 2002). By the end of Bush’s term in office, the Federal budget for the Drug War totaled more than $7 billion dollars. This level of funding– which was more than four times as much at the state level (get cite)– would give rise to a “drug control” lobby, vying for their share of the increasing governmental funding. Federal agencies and their subcontractors became influential lobby groups in the drugs debate. They wield considerable influence today over law-makers today.



Drug Use and Control in the Early 21st century

The war on drugs continued to be the chosen approach during the Clinton administration, despite some re-commitment to his party’s liberal roots: i.e., he expanded drug treatment and education programs in addition to increasing funding for ongoing and new law enforcement or supply reduction programs (e.g. Plan Columbia). Tables 1 and 2 illustrate President’s Clinton’s contributions.

We have now reviewed nearly a century’s worth of drug use and control policies in the U.S. Perhaps it is time to ask what impact these drug control policies and expenditures have had on the problem. Above, we discussed how the more medically-oriented approach of the liberal era was blamed for drug use increases. We also asked if the conservative shift to more punitive policies would rectify that. Evidence to date suggests the drug problem remains fairly resilient to the punitive approach. As will be elaborated up on in later chapters, levels of drug use among our nation’s youth and young adults in the last two decades of the 20th century show modest change despite escalating expenditures, broadening social disapproval, and increased punitive responses (more law enforcement and tougher punishments). While it is true that drug use in the general population reached an all-time high in the 1970s and has declined significantly since then, data (DHHS 2003a; 2003b) for the past two decades show the U.S. war on drugs has had little impact on causal drug use in the general population, chronic drug abuse in the much smaller addict population, and on drug-related crime.

Given the relative overall failure of the drug war to deliver significant and permanent relief, critics from all areas of society have begun a call for a different strategy. Many are demanding reform of the late 20th century drug war tactics, including mandatory minimum laws, felony disenfranchisement (i.e., loss of the right to vote), racial profiling, and a move toward harm reduction policies. Today, there is state-level support for many of these reforms due to public outcry. State reforms to the federal drug war are depicted in Table 3 and will be discussed in later chapters. Unfortunately, the federal government has pressed on with its drug war, claiming new battles to muster up support. A new target is “club drug” use among ravers and middle-class club-goers– members of today’s Generation X and Y.

Declaring New Battles: Club Drugs and Dance Music

MDMA, more commonly called ecstasy, is a popular club drug today. Other notable ones include ketamine, rohypnol, and GHB. Ecstasy was first synthesized in Germany by the Merck in 1912, 1917. As both a mild stimulant and hallucinogen, ecstasy was embraced by the medical community for appetite suppressant and psychotherapy. Therapists in the 1970s experimented with ecstasy to reduce fear and promote communication, however, no research could document reliable benefits. By the mid-1970s, ecstasy use in the medical community fell out of favor. It would re-appear in a new music and dance subculture a decade later.

In the 1980s, a rave subculture emerged in both the U.S. and Europe (e.g., England). It featured all-night dancing to various forms (e.g., house, techno and trance) of electronic, or “sampled” music, at unconventional locations (warehouses and abandoned buildings). The subculture embraced a community ethos of “peace, love, and unity,” not unlike the Hippy subculture of the 1970s. “Ravers” (dance music fans and event devotees) were young, typically between the ages of 13-21 (Reynolds 1998), although their leaders, Djs were slightly older. They were the children of the Baby Boom- Generation X-- whose parents had come of age during the era of the Great Society. Having grown up in the conservative era of alienation, materialism and repressive governmental control, ravers sought protest, expression, and relaxation through all night dance parties with music that was believed to be a universal language, one that would break down social barriers and reduce the space between people (Reynolds 1998). Drugs like ecstasy, with its stimulant and affective properties, fit perfectly, in a similar way that marijuana did with jazz music and hallucinogens did with the Hippie’s rock music.

***Photo #14 about here***

While the rave subculture of the 1980s was considered a “solution” for youth, its growth has created a “moral panic,” considerable concern and reaction over perceived ideas about its connection to related social problems. We have shown here that the connection between music, youth culture and drug use is persistent and strong (see also Bennett 2000; Musto 1999; Reynolds 1998 for more on this point). The perceived danger of this connection is what drives today’s moral panic.

Ecstasy’s Impact on Public Health

Pointing to official data, legislators have acted swiftly and harshly (implementing new and tougher laws, broadening law enforcement powers, and stiffer penalties for violators), thereby, situating electronica within the War on Drugs. Unfortunately, official data support their position. The 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (DHHS 2003a) revealed more than half a million people (676,000) reported using ecstasy in the past month. This is about four and a half times the number of current heroin users. The survey shows ecstasy is more prevalent than heroin among the general U.S. population, with the largest group of users falling between 18 and 25 years of age. High school and emergency room data are even more troublesome. For example, emergency room mentions for ecstasy (421 to 4,026), GHB (145 to 3,330), and Ketamine (81 to 260) all increased dramatically between 1995 and 2002 (DHHS 2003b).

While it is impossible to ascertain how much of ecstasy and other so-called club drug use (e.g., GHB, Ketamine, Rohypnol) is taken at dance events or by those involved in some aspect of the subculture, electronica is currently taking the heat for it. An anti-rave movement, led by social control policies of state and federal governments, is currently underway, providing new momentum for a failing war on drugs.

The anti-rave movement started at the community level, both in the U.S. and England. Cities passed ordinances designed to regulate rave activity. Early law enforcement efforts in U.S. enforced juvenile curfews, fire codes, safety ordinances, liquor licenses, for large public gatherings. Also, rave promoters were forced to provide on site medical services and security. Examples of these tactics include Operation Rave Review in New Orleans, in January of 2000. In a two year period, 652 raves were held at the New Orleans Palace Theatre. Officials reported 400 adolescents overdosing or being transported to local emergency rooms. Police directly targeted the promoters of the events, who were said to have allowed unabated drug use at the local level. New Orleans law makers responded with Operation Rave Review and claimed it reduced overdoses and ER visits by 90%.

As indicated in Table 1, rave or club drugs legislation quickly exploded early this century, with Congress and the White house passing several laws to break up the scene and control club drug use. The Ecstacy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000 would increase penalties for the sale and use of club drugs. In 2003 and after numerous legal challenges, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, or the Rave Act, would make it a felony to provide a space for the purpose of illegal drug use. It was intended to cover the promoters of raves and other dance events. This controversial piece of legislation adjusts the wording of so-called crack house law to cover temporary locations instead of fixed locations, thus equating the ecstasy culture with that of the crack culture.


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