Not everyone knows that much of the illicit drug market had humble or medicinal beginnings. This means, of course, that at some point, virtually every addictive drug, or some form of it, was not only legal, but used to be openly and widely promoted. Some of the worst and most addictive drugs were once given to people for the purposes of healing or stimulating. Others had specific purposes that were aligned with ceremonial rites. Still others were set to pave the way to new kinds of therapy. When we take a serious look at the history of drugs that were once openly available, it’s worth noting that today, all but two of them, alcohol and tobacco, have been banned at the federal level, and even alcohol was once illegal.

Very few people are still around who still clearly remember this time, but the 1920s, also known as, ‘The Roaring 20s,’ was a fascinating time in the United States. Flappers, jazz, cool cars, and The Charleston were highlights of this dance club-led period. The still-popular Broadway play “Chicago” frames the 20s as an age of innocence, and a nation growing under the influence of an ever-burgeoning Hollywood. There was, of course, a dark side to the 1920s, and that was both extreme racism and prohibition. Alcohol was banned for the entire United States in January of 1920, and none of the intended social or economic effects were felt.

devastation of drugsWhat happened instead was a rise in alcohol deaths – prohibition prevented the sale and manufacture of alcohol, not the possession, or the consumption. Some people turned to homemade liquor, but without proper processes, the beverage was not always safe to drink. It is estimated that about 1,000 people died every year from drinking improperly made and improperly handled alcohol. States that gathered revenue from the alcohol sales lost that – in some cases, states and cities from whom alcohol taxes were taken lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Attendance at local entertainment venues declined, as did sales for soft drinks all over the nation.

With the deaths from tainted product, the rise of bootleggers, and lost revenue, prohibition, dubbed ‘the great social and moral experiment,’ was understandably considered a failure. Prohibition also created a new generation of alcoholics – when you can get liquor, you consume as much as you can, as you never know when you’ll have more. These behaviors, of course, were an easy path to alcohol addiction. Other drugs, though, were just waiting for their turn.


Tobacco was used by indigenous nations in the United States for hundreds of years for ceremonial purposes. The type of tobacco used then, though, was different from the tobacco used today. When tobacco was used for ceremonial purposes by indigenous nations, it was attached to religion, and pleasing and communicating with The Creator, the ultimate god. Tobacco was rarely smoked the way that it is today, and was instead used to bless the entire community with better overall health and well-being. When Europeans arrived, though, everything changed: Indigenous people were slaughtered for their goods, and tobacco fell into colonizer’s hands. From there, a mix of captured Indigenous people, along with the first shipment of African slaves were forced to care for huge fields of the once-sacred plant. Tobacco was farmed, gently processed, and sent back to Europe, where it traveled to different parts of the rest of the world. The world’s appetite for tobacco was part of what made the United States the most powerful entity in the world at the time.


There is nothing new about opium. Opium is the original opiate drugs, and one of the oldest, as well as one of the most addictive, drugs that exists today. The origin of opium is debatable: some argue France, others insist that it was first used in South Asia. Whatever the case may be, Asia or Europe seem the most likely candidates, as the oldest stories of opium use come from Asia and Europe. Opium comes from latex from poppy flower seeds – a liquid secreted from the seeds. By the 15th century, widespread recreational use of opium was common throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Because one of the side effects of opium is an increased sex drive, the drug became strongly associated with women, and with prostitution. Opium dens were alternately places to relax, brothels, and meeting places.


The widely-used and widely-banned cocaine has gone from beloved additive to feared substance. Most people know that cocaine, like opium, was once used for medicinal purposes. The popular and traditional American beverage Coca-Cola got its name and and its original purpose from cocaine. The original Coca-Cola, once available exclusively at soda shoppes, gave drinkers a boost of energy, and suppressed appetites. The sugary, drug-laden beverage was advertised to everyone, but with and emphasis on women, to whom Coca-Cola was marketed as a dieting remedy or supplement. At the time, Coca-Cola was also sold in much smaller portions than what’s typically available today – the average serving size was about six ounces, and cost five cents for it’s first 70 years of existence.


Yes, meth used to be legal. Amphetamines were the subject of experimentation by a Romanian-German scientist, who first synthesized methamphetamine in the late 1880s. The drug was synthesized twice more in Japan, but wasn’t utilized by an entity until World War II. During the world’s bloodiest war, some German soldiers were given meth in the form of pills. The goal was an alert, highly-stimulated soldier that could trek, guard, and effectively fight for extended periods of time with minimal rest. The result, though, was sometimes sinister, but completely unexpected: while the soldiers would be as effective as hoped for a day or two, the drugs wore off quickly, and the hangover could last for two weeks. The high of the drug could also be dangerous in some soldiers – there were several instances of soldiers attacking innocent people, or authority figures. Germany pulled the drug from military use, but the drug made it into the United States as part of a weight-loss supplement, where it remained on shelves, and legal, through the 1970s.

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