Skip to main content

Recreational Drug Use


The widespread use of illicit drugs for recreational purposes is not unprecedented in the early twenty-first century. In the absence of any federal regulation in the nineteenth century (state regulatory drug laws were not adopted until the 1890s), drug use was so prevalent Edward M. Brecher observes that America could have been described as a "dope fiend's paradise" (p. 3). Technology contributed to some drug use. The introduction of the hypodermic needle in the 1850s made it easier to administer morphine, and its use to treat wounded and ill soldiers during the Civil War confirmed its legitimacy as an extraordinarily effective pain reliever. Named for the Greek god Morpheus, the drug remained popular through the latter half of the century.

Physicians dispensed opiates directly to patients in their offices or wrote prescriptions for the drug. Even without a visit to the family doctor it was possible to purchase opiates over the counter at the local pharmacy, where they were sold without a prescription. Opiates were available just about everywhere, it seemed, including grocery markets and general stores. Countless patent medicines such as "Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup," "Dover's Powder," and "McMunn's Elixir of Opium" were widely advertised in newspapers, magazines, and billboards as "pain-killers," "cough mixtures," "women's friends," and "consumption cures."

If users were unable to buy opiates in person, they could order them through the mail. As late as 1897 Sears Roebuck advertised a hypodermic kit, which included a syringe, two needles, two vials, and a carrying case for $1.50. Extra needles cost 25 cents each or $2.75 for a dozen. Drug paraphernalia was not always required, however; the popular new soft drink Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1903. In 1906, however, Congress passed the first piece of drug-related legislation, which inaugurated the federal government's century-long war on drugs that has continued into the early 2000s.

Analysis of Users and Their Motivations Over Time

Although drugs were freely available in the nineteenth century, opiate use was regarded as a vice similar to dancing, smoking, gambling, or sexual promiscuity. Although considered immoral, the use of opiates was not subject to moral or legal sanctions as it was by late in the twentieth century. Employees were not fired for addiction, drug use was not recognized as a legal cause for divorce, and addicts functioned as normal members of the community while sustaining their drug habits. Demographically and socioeconomically, the drug-using population also differed dramatically from that of the early 2000s, when it was composed mostly of young, urban males. At the beginning of the twentieth century, most drug users were white, middle-class women who consumed morphine or opium—what physicians referred to as "G.O.M.," or "God's Own Medicine"—to alleviate diarrhea, dysentery, menstrual cramps, menopausal discomfort, and a host of other maladies.

Drug addicts in the 1880s were older than they were in the early 2000s, according to a Chicago study that showed an average age of about forty. In the late nineteenth century, like in the early twenty-first century, drug use filtered through every social strata, but in the nineteenth century opiate use was more extensive among the wealthy and educated classes. Also significant, and contrary to popular notions, there was no disproportionate use of opiates among black Americans; in fact, two surveys conducted in the South confirmed a lower proportion of black drug users than white drug users (Courtwright, pp. 37–38; Morgan, p. 34).

By the 1920s, the perception of the drug user began to change from that of a white, middle-class person to a foreigner, a criminal element, a racial minority, or a member of some other socially marginal group. Nearly a century later, the image of an illicit drug user remained essentially unchanged. One area of commonality for people who consume illegal drugs is the stigma still associated with the behavior. "Typical" drug users also share demographic characteristics: in 2003, white males between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-four were more likely to use drugs than any other segment of the population; as they aged, most of these users tended to "grow out" of the practice.

Researchers have offered numerous explanations for why people take drugs. Some people use drugs to avoid reality, however brief their escape might be. Others use drugs as an act of rebellion against society or parental authority, or as a response to peer pressure. A smaller group of people may be susceptible to an addictive personality. Sociologist and widely published author Andrew Weil argues in "Why People Take Drugs" that people use drugs out of a normal, innate drive to alter their consciousness, and that individuals take drugs much like they endeavor to fulfill hunger or sex drives. Using drugs may not be an aberrant behavior if Weil is correct that "the ubiquity of drug use is so striking that it must represent a basic human appetite," (p. 3). Whatever the motive for using drugs, we can safely assume people do so because drugs make them feel better.

Efforts to Ban Drugs in the Twentieth Century

Manufacturers of patent medicines were still not legally required to indicate the specific ingredients in their products until muckraking journalists began crusading for social reforms in the beginning of the twentieth century. Responding to their demands for regulatory legislation, Congress in 1906 passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required the label on a bottle of patent medicine to indicate the ingredients. The new law did not criminalize the use of any drugs, nor did it contain any enforcement provisions, but it was a major step in the control of opiate addiction.

In 1914, less than a decade after the Pure Food and Drug Act took effect, Congress passed the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act, which required anyone who handled cocaine and opiate derivatives such as morphine and heroin—manufacturers, importers, pharmacists, and physicians—to register with the Treasury Department, pay a special annual $1 tax, and maintain records of all transactions. Anyone who did not register faced a $2,000 fine and a five-year prison sentence. On the surface the new law was essentially a revenue measure that merely regulated the distribution of certain drugs. Over the next several years the Treasury Department, charged with enforcing the law, interpreted it to mean that a doctor could not prescribe opiates to a patient-addict to maintain the patient's addiction, a position Supreme Court decisions upheld.

In the 1920s, the United States expanded control of the use and distribution of illegal substances. To better enable the federal government to monitor the use of legitimate narcotics and to more effectively reduce the volume of illicit drug traffic, Congress passed the Jones-Miller Act, officially known as the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act of 1922, which also established a Federal Narcotics Board.

Congress took another step in drug enforcement in the 1930s by creating a separate, autonomous Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), which almost immediately began receiving reports from public officials and private citizens detailing the dangerous effects of a "new" drug that was especially popular in southwestern states. Marijuana, or what FBN Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger called the "assassin of youth," had not been included in the Harrison Act. In response to exaggerated and sometimes graphic accounts about the violent effects of marijuana, and predictions that marijuana smoking would rapidly spread beyond the Southwest, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Act into law in August 1937. Modeled after the Harrison Act, the new legislation permitted the medical use of marijuana, but mandated a transfer tax of $1 per ounce if the person was registered and $100 per ounce if the person had not purchased a transfer tax stamp. The first violator of the law, fifty-eight-year-old peddler Samuel R. Caldwell, received a four-year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary and was fined $1,000.

World War II effectively disrupted international narcotics distribution, which resulted in a general decline of drug use in the United States. By the early 1950s, however, Cold War anxieties about Soviet aggression and media reports alleging that communist China was trafficking in heroin—a claim repeatedly confirmed by Anslinger in the media and before numerous congressional hearings—prompted Congress to adopt a more punitive response to illicit drug use in the form of the 1951 Boggs Act. Mandatory minimum sentences were stipulated for all marijuana and other drug offenses. First-time offenders received sentences of two to five years, second-time violators were sentenced to five to ten years, and third-time offenders faced mandatory prison sentences of twenty years with no probation. All offenses also carried fines up to $2,000. In 1956, concern about a communist plot to flood the West with heroin, and reports of a rise in the number of teenage drug addicts, sparked a renewed concern about drug use. Again, at Commissioner Anslinger's urging, Congress passed the Narcotic Control Act, which doubled the Boggs penalties and added the death penalty for anyone who gave or sold heroin to a person under eighteen years old.

Drug use did not decline in the 1960s, but a decrease in the media coverage and a transition from punitive legislation to a gradual relaxation in the public's attitude toward drug use resulted in an ideological shift in drug control policy. In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which abolished mandatory minimum sentences and reduced the penalties for simple possession of marijuana. The legislation also classified all drugs according to their medical use, and their potential for abuse and addiction. A Schedule I substance, such as heroin or LSD, was considered to have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Codeine in cough syrup is an example of a Schedule V drug with a low potential for abuse. In 1973, soon after the act took effect, President Richard M. Nixon's specially appointed Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended that marijuana possession be decriminalized. Although the commission's findings indicated a rejection of the "gettough" approach to drug use, Congress has not significantly reduced the penalties for marijuana offenses.

In the mid-1980s the appearance of "crack," a smokable form of cocaine, created a wave of fear similar to that of marijuana in the 1930s and heroin in the 1950s. The government's response to the crack "epidemic" also was similar to that of the earlier drug scares. In the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Congress authorized nearly $4 billion for an intensified war on drugs and restored mandatory minimum sentences. Two years later the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 added the death penalty for anyone who kills a law enforcement officer during the commission of a drug-related crime. Because policymakers considered crack to be more dangerous than powder cocaine, the law differentiated between the two substances: a person who sells 500 grams of powder cocaine receives a mandatory five-year minimum sentence; a person who sells only five grams of crack cocaine receives a five-year sentence. The 1988 legislation is also notable for announcing the government's objective "to create a Drug-Free America by 1995." No significant piece of drug control was passed during President Bill Clinton's tenure, or during the George W. Bush administration through 2002.

Linkages of Drug Use to Ethnic Culture and Cultural Protest

As early as the nineteenth century drug addicts were identified with racial minorities. Chinese laborers, originally encouraged to emigrate to America to help build railroads, brought with them the custom of smoking opium. In the South cocaine use among blacks fueled white fears that under the drug's influence, black users were induced to commit crimes and sexually assault white women. No evidence existed to confirm such an effect, but it reinforced white insecurities about race relations. Unconfirmed allegations that cocaine empowered black users with extraordinary human strength also circulated among the white citizenry, and even local law enforcement officers were concerned about blacks acquiring superhuman powers. Convinced that .32-caliber bullets were not sufficiently powerful to bring down a "cocaine-crazed Negro," David F. Musto notes, some police switched to .38-caliber bullets (p. 7).

Morphine was not associated with an ethnic minority, according to drug historian David F. Musto, because it was used for medicinal purposes and therefore accepted by mainstream society. He does note, though, that when opiates began to be perceived as addictive, morphine was linked with "lower classes" and the "underworld."

A major factor in the enactment of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 was an increasing volume of complaints about Mexicans bringing marijuana across the border into the United States. Commissioner Anslinger also claimed that many jazz musicians were regular marijuana users, and he was convinced that provocative song titles such as "Sweet Marijuana Brown," "Reefer Song," and "The Funny Reefer Man" confirmed marijuana use within a jazz subculture. Later, in the 1960s, marijuana and a recently discovered hallucinogen called lysergic acid diethylamide, more popularly known as LSD, were closely identified as counterculture drugs. Marijuana and LSD in particular were used predominantly by hippie types, usually young people who protested conventional values and lifestyles. In the 1980s, blacks were again associated with cocaine in the form of crack, rather than powder cocaine.

Contemporary Patterns of Recreational Drug Use

Drug use is frequently determined by geography and the users' socioeconomic status. In the 1980s, crack cocaine use was more prevalent among inner-city black Americans because it was sold in smaller, cheaper quantities than powder cocaine. "Ice," a freebase form of methamphetamine, has been more popular in Hawaii and on the West Coast than in other regions, while "huffing," or glue sniffing, is more likely to occur among younger adolescents in rural areas where access to cocaine and heroin is more limited than in urban areas. Cocaine, which stimulates the central nervous system, is popular because it enhances alertness and produces euphoria, or a sense of well-being. In the late 1990s the hallucinogen MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), called Ecstasy or "X" on the street, gained popularity among young people who used it at "raves" because at low levels the potentially fatal drug was mildly intoxicating.

In spite of more severe state and federal penalties, educational programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E), the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy by many schools, and a $19 billion federal drug budget for fiscal year 2003, illicit drugs remained immensely popular in the early twenty-first century. Some indicators suggested that drug use generally appeared to be leveling off, but it was still a critical social problem. Estimates tend to vary according to research methodology, but in 2000 the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reported that millions of Americans used drugs, including an estimated 5.74 million who were chronic or occasional users of cocaine; 1.2 million who were chronic or occasional users of heroin; approximately 600,000 who used methamphetamines; and perhaps 12 million who smoked marijuana at least once a month. According to ONDCP figures, users spent an estimated $64 billion annually to consume 13 metric tons (1 metric ton is about 2,200 pounds) of heroin, 20 metric tons of methamphetamines, 259 metric tons of cocaine, and 1,047 metric tons of marijuana.

Illicit drug use is a complex phenomenon that should not be viewed as a one-dimensional problem. The ONDCP reported that nationwide in 2000 there were nearly 4 million persons over age twelve who needed but did not receive treatment for an illicit drug problem. One-fifth (21 percent) of state prison inmates and three-fifths (61 percent) of federal prison inmates are drug offenders. Health care costs, productivity losses, and other drug use–related expenses totaled more than $160 billion.

Research on drug use completed in the late 1990s and early 2000s provided mixed results. A 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that the use of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal drugs increased sharply among young Americans during the previous year. Perhaps more disturbing is that fewer young people regarded drug use as risky behavior. According to the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders, in 2001, fewer respondents in all three grades perceived using marijuana once or twice a week to be harmful than the same grades ten years earlier in 1991.

Drugs were everywhere. At least it seemed so. According to an August 2002 survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), teenagers said marijuana was easier to buy than cigarettes or beer. More than one-quarter (27 percent) of the 1,000 teenagers polled said they could find it in an hour or less. For the first time since CASA began the survey in 1996, marijuana was the easiest of the "major" drugs to access.

However, there was reason for optimism. The 2002 MTF survey indicated that illicit drug use among eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders "remained stable or decreased in some cases." This finding was confirmed when 63 percent of the respondents felt their schools were drug-free, suggesting that educational programs were having a positive impact.

See also: Drinking, Prohibition and Temperance, Raves/Raving, Smoking, Teenage Leisure Trends


Brecher, Edward M. Licit and Illicit Drugs: The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana—Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972.

Chatterjee, Sumana. "More Young People Using Illegal Drugs, Survey Finds." Philadelphia Inquirer (13 September 2002): A3.

Courtwright, David T. Dark Paradise: Opiate Addiction in America Before 1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

"Drug Use Trends Fact Sheet." Office of National Drug Control Policy, NCJ 190780. Washington, D.C., 2000.

"High School and Youth Trends." National Institute of Drug Abuse. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services. Available from

Inciardi, James A. The War on Drugs: Heroin, Cocaine, Crime, and Public Policy. Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1986.

McWilliams, John C. The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Morgan, H. Wayne. Drugs in America: A Social History, 1800–1980. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1981.

Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

"National Drug Control Strategy." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002.

Toppo, Greg. "Teens: Marijuana Easy to Get." Philadelphia Inquirer (21 August 2002): A3.

Weil, Andrew. "Why People Take Drugs." In The American Drug Scene: An Anthology. Edited by James A. Inciardi and Karen McElrath. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company, 1995.

John C. McWilliams

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Recreational Drug Use." Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America. . 23 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Recreational Drug Use." Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America. . (September 23, 2018).

"Recreational Drug Use." Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America. . Retrieved September 23, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.