Drugs Dividing America

In this period and especially after Prohibition, crime related to illegal substance use, manufacture, and distribution had become an institution of US society.  Two themes of US history continued throughout this era of drug use that involve the connections between different groups of Americans.  Racism continued to divide citizens and discourage a melting pot of ideals since practices of certain cultures were deemed irregular and consequently pushed towards criminalization instead of intellectually debated.  Lobbyists and wealthy individuals involved in marijuana’s criminalization also highlight the power of money and how it has created significant divisions that have led to trends of inequality in the US.


1938-1957 Coffee and Cigarettes

The time after Prohibition and before the 1960s was relatively placid in the history of substance use and control in the United States, although with the introduction of the “coffee break” and tobacco companies’ increased focus on positive advertising associated with smoking cigarettes reinforces the evidence supporting a history of Americans seeking an alteration of consciousness.  In this time period before the drug craze of the 1960s, legalized substances such as coffee and cigarettes rose in popularity.  Although these are relatively benign substances compared to stronger drugs, it is important to chart their history along with more disruptive substances since their legalization allowed their consumption and access, therefore highlighting that the alteration of consciousness is not the target of substance control but that focus is placed more on the magnitude of that alteration.

In 1947, the first coffee vending machine was created.  The idea of instant coffee took off with the US becoming home to more than 60,000 coffee machines by 1955.  This proliferation of coffee consumption was aided by an association of South American coffee exporters known as the Pan American Coffee Bureau that spent $2 million on an advertising campaign popularizing the idea of a coffee break in the workplace, with a slogan embracing dependency, “Give Yourself a Coffee-Break—And Get What Coffee Gives to You.”  By the end of 1952, 80% of American companies offered their employees a short break to fuel up on caffeine through coffee.  These events coincided with a time in American history where an idea of a ‘right way’ to live was popularized through advertisement and propaganda advocating consumerism and the traditional model of family in which the father had an office job.  For a nation to embrace the benign effects of one substance as beneficial to production and to completely deny any beneficial effects of other substances seems hypocritical and influenced by moral and racist convictions.

Modern day Starbucks ad depicting a similar idea to the slogan popularized in the 1950s.  Instant coffee gave way to installations such as coffee shops, with Starbucks reaching nearly 11,000 stores in the US alone, it could be said that Americans are a little dependent upon their coffee.

Modern day Starbucks ad depicting a similar idea to the slogan popularized in the 1950s. Instant coffee gave way to installations such as coffee shops, with Starbucks reaching nearly 11,000 stores in the US alone, it could be said that Americans are a little dependent upon their coffee.

The Nazis were actually the first to link tobacco and lung cancer in 1939 and even though a US study was published linking smoking and lung cancer in 1950, cigarettes’ popularity and acceptance was heightened and improved in this time period.  Hollywood films began their tremendous history of cigarette smoking support in 1949 when in The Sands of Iwo Jima, John Wayne includes cigarettes in a celebration of the defeat of the Japanese army by saying, “I’ve never felt so good in my life. How about a cigarette?”   The responsibility and power of Hollywood films and media in general to influence American society has been heavily debated but its influence upon cigarette use is evident.  Actually, to skip ahead a bit, 1983 Sylvester Stallone signed an agreement with the Brown and Williamson Company (manufacturer of many cigarettes) for $500,000 to “smoke their cigarettes on screen in his next five films (including Rambo and Rocky IV)”.  (History)

Although the negative consequences of cigarette smoking continued to be revealed, cigarette companies continued their advertisement and popularization of smoking.  The Marlboro Man was introduced in 1953 to relate male smoking with that of a rugged cowboy.  In 1954, the major American tobacco companies joined together to post an advertisement in nearly 450 newspapers denouncing the scientific claims linking tobacco and lung cancer.

Works Cited:

“History of Drugs in America Timeline.” Shmoop. 15 Sept. 2013 <http://www.shmoop.com/drugs-america/timeline.html&gt;.

“Starbucks Company Statistics.” Statistic Brain RSS. 14 Oct. 2013 <http://www.statisticbrain.com/starbucks-company-statistics/&gt;.

1937 – Marijuana Tax Act

Propoganda highlighting marijuana's madness inducing side effects if it were to unfortunately fall into the hands of the white elite.

Propaganda highlighting marijuana’s madness inducing side effects upon the white elite

Although cannabis cultivation and use can be traced back some 400 years , federal attention to marijuana as an intoxicant began in the 1920s and 1930s.  During this time and Prohibition, exaggerated accounts of ‘reefer madness’ proliferated throughout the US thanks to Yellow Journalism.  The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, formed during Prohibition, was left with a loss of work upon the ratification of the 21st Amendment, so marijuana was quickly brought to the forefront of substance control policy through propaganda and misinformation.

As the first federal mandate addressing marijuana use and control, the Marijuana Tax Act made marijuana illegal at the federal level.  Adding credibility to marijuana’s connected history to racism, two men were instrumental in pushing marijuana control by publishing specific Yellow Journalism that exaggerated the harms of cannabis use to an extreme degree that ended up convincing Congress to pass this Marijuana Tax Act.  These two journalists were Harry Anslinger and William Randolf Hearst.  Hearst owned a string of newspapers and aided Anslinger’s onslaught of marijuana for reasons including his racism and hatred of Mexicans, he had also invested heavily in the timber industry to support his newspaper chain and didn’t want to see the development of hemp paper in competition.

It’s difficult to justify the existence of marijuana prohibition as a protectant of US citizens, especially if every 30 seconds an American is arrested for violating cannabis laws (Drug).  Alcohol prohibition came to an end after producing more crime than it prevented, the ratification of the 21st Amendment brought with it the introduction of strong alcohol focused interest groups and lobbyists that have continued to attack and demonize marijuana which they saw as competition to the alcohol industry.

At a time when the Red Scare was taking hold and a hyper sensitivity to outside or different ideas than capitalism was increasing, marijuana fit into everything that propaganda existed to denounce and it seemed to have been swept up in this furor that became known as the politics of uncertainty.

Works Cited:

“Drug War Clock.” DrugSense. 13 Oct. 2013 <http://www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock&gt;.

“Why is Marijuana Illegal?” Drug War Rant. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://www.drugwarrant.com/articles/why-is-marijuana-illegal/&gt;.

“60 Years of Prohibition.” NORML.org. 13 Oct. 2013 <http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/norml-report-on-sixty-years-of-marijuana-prohibition-in-the-us&gt;.

1933 – 21st Amendment Ratified

Almost as soon as the 18th Amendment was ratified, interest groups were enacted to advocate for its repeal.  Marking the first and last time an amendment has been repealed in US history, the 18th was ousted by the 21st on Dec 5, 1933, legalizing the manufacture and consumption of alcohol once again.  Throughout the 14 years of Prohibition, gang activity increased tremendously and a multitude of illegal activity spurned from the criminalization of one substance, making it difficult to defend the ratification and enforcement of the 18th Amendment.

“Not only did the number of serious crimes increase, but crime became organized. Criminal groups organize around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling and prostitution. In the process of providing goods and services those criminal organizations resort to real crimes in defense of sales territories, brand names, and labor contracts. That is true of extensive crime syndicates (the Mafia) as well as street gangs, a criminal element that first surfaced during prohibition”  (Organized).

The following outlines increased expenditures towards dealing with illegal activity and the increase of illegal activity during Prohibition:

  • Police funding: INCREASED $11.4 million
  • Arrests for Prohibition Violations: INCREASED 102+%
  • Arrests for Drunkenness and Disorderly Conduct: INCREASED 41%
  • Arrests of Drunken Drivers: INCREASED 81%
  • Thefts and Burglaries: INCREASED 9%
  • Homicides, Assault, and Battery: INCREASE 13%
  • Number of Federal Convicts: INCREASED 561%
  • Federal Prison Population: INCREASED 366%
  • Total Federal Expenditures on Penal Institutions: INCREASED 1,000%

Works Cited:

“Organized Crime and Prohibition.” Organized Crime and Prohibition. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://www.albany.edu/~wm731882/organized_crime1_final.html&gt;.

1920 – Enforcement of Prohibition Begins

As mentioned in the previous post, the 18th Amendment went into effect a year after it was ratified to the Constitution.  This was not before Congress could address loopholes in enforcing the act such as the fact that “liquor used for medicinal, sacramental or industrial purposes remained legal, as did fruit or grape beverages prepared at home”; varying degrees of government participation in Prohibition in the 1920s seriously weakened the enforcement of alcohol’s illegality.  The National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act of 1919, set official restrictions of Prohibition and clarified the 18th Amendment.  The Volstead Act stated that “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors” were all classified as any beverage that was more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. Owning any item designed to manufacture alcohol was illegal and set specific fines and jail sentences in order for Prohibition to properly be enforced.  There were loopholes within the Volstead Act that allowed for many citizens to continue the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition.  The actual drinking of liquor was not specified in the 18th Amendment.  Many people stocked up in the time before the amendment was ratified.  The Volstead Act also allowed the consumption of prescribed alcohol, consequently the number of subscriptions increased.

The fact that Prohibition was also known as the ‘Noble Experiment’ implies that the ratification and enforcement of Prohibition includes a strong focus on ‘morals’ and subjective views of right and wrong.  It is ironic that such a focus would be placed upon morals for a period characterized by speakeasies, glamor, and gangsters and a period of time in which even the average citizen broke the law.

Legal enforcement of the 18th Amendment by disposing of liquor into the sewer.

Legal enforcement of the 18th Amendment by disposing of liquor into the sewer.

The importance of Prohibition is apparent in its failure.  Gangsters and speakeasies dominated the distribution of alcohol during Prohibition, contributing to organized crime and illegal activity.  Prohibition’s purpose was to outlaw the manufacture and use of alcohol, a substance deemed to cause illegal and subjected inappropriate activity through intoxication, it became evident that alcohol led to far less problems than those that were being created through its demand regardless of its status of legality.

This graph makes it apparent that Prohibition was successful in reducing the number of gallons of alcohol in circulation for a short time after its ratification, although as the gangsters and speakeasies proliferated the alcohol did as well, to a degree even greater than pre-18th Amendment America.

This graph makes it apparent that Prohibition was successful in reducing the number of gallons of alcohol in circulation for a short time after its ratification, although as the gangsters and speakeasies proliferated the alcohol did as well, to a degree even greater than pre-18th Amendment America.









Works Cited:

Rosenberg, Jennifer. “Prohibition.” About.com 20th Century History. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://history1900s.about.com/od/1920s/p/prohibition.htm&gt;.

Thornton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure.” Alcohol Prohibition Was A Failure. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-157.html&gt;.

1919 – The 18th Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified on January 29th, 1919, prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors in the United States.  Up to this point in the 20th century, prohibition movements had been popularizing across the country, aided by religious groups who considered alcohol, specifically drunkenness, a threat to the nation.  By 1916, 23 of 48 states had ratified anti saloon legislation many even going further by prohibiting the manufacture of all alcoholic beverages.  The Congressional elections of that year yielded a 2/3 majority of “dry” (those in favor of alcoholic prohibition) vs. “wet” members.

In examining the history of alcohol as a legal, illegal, and legal again substance, a main theme that occurs is one intertwined with the Temperance movement, which included a large number of religious groups who advocated for the reduction of alcohol and drunkenness in the country. Important to note is that the Temperance movement was instrumental in outlawing slavery.  Those involved in the Temperance movement viewed slavery and alcohol as detrimental to US society. The National Prohibition Act was also passed in 1919 to give Congress power to enforce Prohibition.  The 18th Amendment went into effect in January of 1920.

It is interesting how things have been defined as legal and illegal and that in the case of slavery and alcohol, the same group was primarily responsible for both of their outlawing.  Through examining history, we can see the different incentives for certain practices or substances to be deemed legal or illegal.  Slavery can be viewed as negative for the waves of unequal distribution of opportunity and ideology that it produced across US history, therefore we would believe it a good thing that slavery was outlawed.  It is more difficult to determine if alcohol or other substance’s outlawing was beneficial or not to US history since the history of drug enforcement is still unraveling.

The 18th Amendment signaled a dominance of the ideals at the root of the Temperance movement and those who seemed to push anti-drunken and conscious altering substance use in America.  If the history of substance use and enforcement in the US were to be laid out on a rope, and each prominent group of Americans were to take up a handle of that rope, religious groups should be given a +1 for effect.


Moral reasoning for Prohibition as if the outlaw of alcohol will save infants from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Moral reasoning for Prohibition as if the outlaw of alcohol will save infants from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Works Cited:

“18th and 21st Amendments.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://www.history.com/topics/18th-and-21st-amendments&gt;.

“Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era.” Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013 <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-prohibitionspeakeasy.html&gt;.

Drug Enforcement 1915 into WWII and Beyond

Moving forward in the 20th century brings some milestones for the history of substance use and control in the US, from Prohibition to the Marijuana Tax Act, the history of substance use continues and becomes increasingly intricate during this second time frame which covers roughly 1915- Post WWII America.  During this time period the US, through a poorly defined moral compass, defined and redefined multiple substances as legal or illegal, making it increasingly difficult to define right and wrong and what seems to work and not work in the realm of substance control in the US.