Drug Use by Decade, Part I

drugs in history

Recreational drug use, however it’s been perceived, or whatever the legality, has been a social norm in many countries since the 16th century. At that time, Europe and most of Asia had hundreds of opium dens, buildings that functioned as meeting places, brothels, and resting spots. Though highly-addictive, there was little to no regulation on opium’s use, and use of the drug spread. With the spread of opium, came innovation, and through experimentation, opiate drugs, like heroin and morphine, were born.  

It’s fairly easy to map out drug use in the 20th and 21st centuries – tobacco, alcohol, and opium are, and may always be, the three biggest players, though opium may be upstaged by synthetic drugs and opiates in the future. Opium isn’t common now, of course. Most countries have completely outlawed its use. It lives on through opiate drugs, though, and today’s opiates are even more dangerous than opium used to be. While there can never be an exhaustive study of every drug and every user, we can get a general idea from a variety of data sources, including historical documents like diaries, newspapers, and receipts.

What is interesting, though, is the explosion of drug diversity in such a short period of time. All over the world, most countries had two or three very common drugs that were typically used judiciously by whomever wanted them. In the late 19th century, though, things changed, and from there, the rate of change has come more and more quickly.

Pre-20th Century

drugs by decade

Prior to the 20th century, two drugs in particular enjoyed widespread use: opium and cannabis. Cannabis, and it’s cousin marijuana, continues to make waves and win over governments all over the world.  Opium, however, came to a grinding halt: after centuries of the ill effects of addiction to the drug, including powerful cravings, nausea, and seizures from withdrawal, governments began the slow process of removing as much of the age-old poison as they could. Though no government was successful in completely eradicating all use of opium, it is difficult to find opium today. Instead, though, there are worse options, and addiction to modern opiates destroys people every day.

Opium, of course, was never alone in its use: right beside opium, as is the case today, was alcohol. Alcohol is probably the oldest drug of them all, with nearly every nation having a culture and history surrounding its use. Everything from grand celebrations dedicated to Bacchus, the God of Festivities in Ancient Greece, to ceremonial wine used in Christian church ceremonies, to binge-drinking on college campuses embodies cultures around drinking. Just as long as the history of drinking is the abuse of alcohol. Alcoholism is nothing new, and different societies have dealt with alcohol addiction in different ways, though usually the solution was simply to care for an intoxicated person if they passed out.

The world’s dependence on tobacco started with the colonization of the present-day United States. Tobacco was a native plant, used by indigenous nations strictly for ceremonial and religious purposes. When Europeans came, though, tobacco was grown and harvested en mass to be sent back to a demanding Europe, who enjoyed the dried leaves in pipes and for chewing. As tobacco became a favored luxury, indigenous nations suffered huge losses in their population, culture, languages, and traditions.


Cocaine made its mainstream debut in the form of a delicious, effervescent beverage. This beverage was marketed as a tasty health supplement, something that will give you a boost of energy, and suppress the appetite. The beverage was even named after the star ingredient: Coca-Cola. With a sugary spike mixing with the opioid high, Coca-Cola’s original formula enjoyed a widespread embrace that lasted for a number of years. During this time, however, the very first drug treatment clinic opened for people who had fallen victim to heroin addiction, a substance developed to alleviate severe pain.


Jazz and liquor were considered the top social ills of the 1920s. Though marijuana often appeared on the scene as well, alcohol was particularly popular as a recreational drug due to prohibition. Prohibition presented an odd situation: the manufacture and distribution of alcohol was banned, but not the possession or consumption. In speakeasies and homes, alcohol was created however the creator could. The rate of alcoholism rose, as did the rate of domestic violence. The unforeseen effect of declining industries, particularly soda sales and movie theater attendance, also impacted Congress’ eventual decision to end prohibition.    


In the 1930s, the shadow of the Great Depression affected all in the nation, but it was darkened further by a growing American addiction to morphine and tobacco. Though tobacco had always existed in the background, the American addiction to it continued to grow through this time as people turned to cigarettes and alcohol amid rising executive suicide rates. Morphine, a powerful opioid pain killer, fell onto the Black Market around this time, and made its way into homes and establishments. There, users became addicted to the calming, euphoric effects, and a new drug crisis emerged. The face of the addiction was married, white, and female, often dealing with emotional or mental health issues. In Akron, Ohio, an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous dedicated itself to offering support and empathy to those fighting alcohol addiction.  


Through the 1940s, the American addiction to alcohol, morphine, and tobacco continued to grow. During this time, however, scientists began to take a serious look at the effects of tobacco on people. During this time, some of the worst effects of tobacco, including its link to certain cancers, were established, and circulated through medical communities. Ending the ever-widening addiction and access, however, presented an entirely different problem. Elsewhere in the world, methamphetamines were utilized to fuel German soldiers, but the highly addictive drug was soon pulled by the government, when it was reported that soldiers were volatile and violent while high, and descended into an often weeks-long hangover after the drug wore off.

This article is continued in part two.