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Viewpoint: From Whiskey to Opium to Marijuana The History of the U.S. Drug Culture

Janson, Paul MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000520429.93654.9c

Dr. Jansonis an emergency physician affiliated with Lawrence General Hospital in Lawrence, MA. He is the author of a novel, Mal Practice, and a children's book, The Child in Our Heart, both available on

Figure. B

Figure. B



‘Drugs’ were used at various times and places in the United States, beginning with the English settlement. The Iberians, Spanish, Portuguese, and the French conquered, traded with, and, in many cases, enslaved the indigenous population, while the English sought from the beginning of their invasion to displace the Native Americans and take the land for their sole use. What has this to do with drugs? The British determined what use the land would be put to, what would be grown, and what would be exported. Much is made of the Jamestown colony and how it was saved by the intervention of Pocahontas, but the real salvation of the colony was tobacco.

Tobacco was apparently used by Native Americans in rituals, and the colonists soon recognized it as a potent drug that produced pleasant stimulation and addiction. The export of tobacco became the mainstay of commerce in Virginia. The profits from this trade sustained the colony, allowing expansion and near complete displacement of the native people and eventually the expulsion of the English from the colonies. (

The various causes of the Revolutionary War are well explored elsewhere, but one of the most famous incidents from the war was the Boston Tea Party, which was essentially a drug turf war. Tea was considered a stimulant at the time, and the earliest leaves were prized for their potency. Local dealers (smugglers), like John Hancock, resented that the British government controlled the market in this “drug” trade. ( The Revolutionary War was fought and won, but when Washington became president, few thought that the nation would last. There was no hard cash, and the paper money issued during the war was worthless. Taxes had to be collected from somewhere, and the somewhere was corn whiskey.

The taxation of distilled liquor has a substantial history; the “proof” attached to spirits derived from the royal tax collectors in England where distilled liquor was taxed according to alcohol content. Government agents would mix a sample with a small amount of gun powder, set it on fire, and if it burned, it was said to be 100 percent “proved” and taxable, or 100 proof whiskey. (J Chem Educ 2004;81[9]:1258.) No such proof was required when the citizens of Appalachia brought their corn liquor to market, but riots did ensue when attempts were made to collect the tax. Militias were called out, and George Washington found himself at war with its citizens, some of whom had fought for independence beside the general. Kentucky was one of the principle sources of corn liquor, and Bourbon County provided whiskey and its name too. (The Alcohol Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press; 1979.) It was much easier to transport jugs of whiskey than corn to the market, and so moonshining began and continues still I'm told, a legacy of the government's early effort to control drugs. Worth noting is that Washington spent a considerable amount of his income as president on his liquor supply and owned the largest distillery in the United States in 1797.

Washington and many other politicians openly plied voters with spirits at the polling stations. (U.S. News & World Report. Nov. 8, 2011; practice was not unusual, and reached its zenith in the 1839 campaign of William Henry Harrison, hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. The candidate's slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (vice president Tyler, that is), and the campaign was a circus of rolling large balls from town to town (keep the ball rolling), barbeques, log cabins, and hard cider. ( The term booze became popular during this campaign when distiller E. G. Booz made bottles shaped like log cabins filled with, well, “booze.” (

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From Alcohol to Drugs

Most people in the early 19th century regarded alcohol as an intoxicant (read drug here), but they didn't think it was necessarily bad, unlike opium. The “open door policy” originated with the United States and was applied to all Asian nations, including China. ( The British and other Europeans, with the United States playing a small role, eventually forced China to allow the admission of the opium trade into their country. The Opium Wars began when the Chinese government became alarmed about the rising opium addiction problem in their population and attempted to stop the importers, Britain being the principal merchant, from continuing the trade. The Opium Wars lasted from 1839 to 1860. ( Meanwhile, the Civil War was brewing in the United States.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was credited with winning the Civil War for the Union, and became president to head one of the most corrupt administrations in this country's history. He was also renowned as a drinker and a smoker of cigars. His death was a result of this habit and head and neck cancer. As he was dying, however, he was also writing his memoir while being liberally supplied with laudanum (opium) and a cocaine-fortified Bordeaux wine. The creator of this mixture was Angelo Mariani, and it was sold as Vin Mariani. Angelo was a master of marketing and among the first to use celebrity endorsements. The endorsements were a list of luminaries including Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XII, Pope Saint Pius X, and John Phillips Sousa. (Vinepair. Oct. 3, 2014;



When in 1885, Atlanta, GA, passed legislation to prohibit the sale of cocaine and alcohol mixtures, an enterprising pharmacist named John Pemberton marketed a carbonated mixture containing cocaine and cola: Coca Cola. The cocaine has been removed from that drink, but of course the formula for Coca Cola is a closely guarded secret. (Brain Robbers: How Alcohol, Cocaine, Nicotine, and Opiates Have Changed Human History [Praeger Series on Contemporary Health and Living.] Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO; 2014.) It is sufficient to say that drug use was very popular by the turn of the 19th century.

But there was also a rising concern in the country about the use of drugs, particularly alcohol. This became known as the Temperance movement, and it would ultimately result in the Volstead Act, the 19th amendment to the Constitution and the beginning of government regulation of drug use on a major scale. Prohibition of alcohol proved to be a failure, of course, but did not dissuade the government from pursuing a policy of regulation. With the repeal of the 19th amendment, the authority to control alcohol was transferred to local governments, many of which still prohibit the sale of alcohol. One of the interesting results is that many of the states that allow alcohol sales allow it only in “state” liquor stores; the government has become the very thing that it previously forbade.



It was at about this time that the federal government began to take the substances that were available to its citizens seriously, and the Pure Food and Drug Act was adopted in 1906. ( The Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, and the government attempted to control marijuana and immigration because marijuana was a Mexican product and the immigration of Mexicans became a problem partly because they used marijuana. The debate was and still is inflammatory and polarizing.

The people who felt that tobacco and alcohol should remain unrestricted, by the federal government at least, determined that marijuana should be placed in the most dangerous drug category. The Controlled Substance Act of the 1970s placed it in Schedule I. (Drug Policy Alliance. Oct. 9, 2014; The abandonment of prohibition coincided with the extension of governmental control of other drugs, medicinal and recreational. It was, in fact, at this point that the distinction between the two became a prominent part of our social culture. This led to the central argument surrounding the legalization of marijuana: its “medical” value. Such an argument, that to justify making a “drug” available depended upon demonstrating its “medicinal value,” would have seemed silly a century earlier.

But the door is now open and the sure path to legalization, if not societal acceptance, lies in proving that there is benefit to what was once illegal. Drugs already established like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are somewhat exempt from the legal restraints, but the rising tide of “evidence,” real or imagined, that red wine and coffee have beneficial effects shows that this policy extends to the “drugs” we commonly use and would never consider restricting. Is proof of benefit necessary for us to feel comfortable using what we feel are “drugs?” There is a rising body of “evidence” that cocaine may be useful in treating PTSD. (Duffel Blog. May 4, 2014; Indeed the use of common table salt may be more restricted today than alcohol is. (Reuters. June 1, 2016;

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