U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Social History of American Drug Use

NCJ Number
Journal of Drug Issues Volume: 22 Issue: 1 Dated: (1992) Pages: 31-52
Date Published
22 pages

Three cycles of drug use that have appeared in United States history are reviewed.


The analysis reveals that periods of greatly expanded drug use have followed each of the country's major national crises: the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Sixties. The analysis argues that drug use during these periods came to symbolize an independent, antinomial character ideal. After 2-3 decades of extreme proliferation, each period has been followed by a period in which drug use has been condemned and abstinence has been proffered as an exemplary character ideal. During these periods, drug use symbolized the excesses of individualism and the neglect of the commonweal. This history suggests that the prospects for reducing drug problems significantly may depend on the institutional and ideological responses developed to cope with the Nation's most recent crisis. However, institutionally the Nation is in a period of rapid flux, and new institutions are fragile and fragmented. Public confidence in traditional institutions of government, law, religion, school, and family is now uneven. The current situation is even more uncertain ideologically. Commitment to various institutions now contends with the equally viable possibility of cynical privatism. Therefore, now may be the time to refocus the debate about drug problems away from penalties and punishment and toward the deeper concerns. 39 references

Date Published: January 1, 1992