Drugged Out America

In 1982, Nancy Reagan formally launched the post-modern prohibition movement, the war on drugs.   While begun under President Richard Nixon, her infamous “Just Say No” speech at the Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, CA, officially established the war on drugs as national policy.

Her original campaign sought to address an assortment of alleged youthful vices, including alcohol and drug use, peer violence and premarital sex.  However, shrewd moralists, clever politicians and opportunists within the police-corporate system (the domestic corollary to President Dwight Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex) used the speech to capture the new cash cow, the war on drugs.

During the last three decades, the war on drugs has proven an ever-deepening failure.  Like 1920s Prohibition that fashioned the modern crime syndicate, this “war” established a new service business for corporate capitalism, the prison-industrial complex.

While it is impossible to tabulate the full costs of drug use in the U.S., even the most conservative estimates are staggering. Millions of people (some estimates run as high as 20% of the population) either regularly abuse or are addicted to “drugs,” whether legal or illegal, whether a commercial or underground product.  One estimate places the costs associated with of drug addiction/abuse at “over $484 billion per year” that includes costs for policing, healthcare, crime and lost earnings.

In 2010, the U.S. government spent an estimated $15 billion waging its fruitless war on drugs.  Two academic experts, Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, estimate that de-criminalizing (i.e., regulating) currently illegal drugs would save Americans approximately $41 billion a year in federal and state government expenditures relating to drug enforcement.

In the years since Mrs. Reagan uttered her dubious words, the total costs of the war on drugs is estimated at $1 trillion. According to a study released by the Associated Press in 2010, the $1 trillion expenditure covers: border efforts at interception drug trafficking; foreign drug wars in Afghanistan, Mexico and Columbia; arrest and prosecution of those in federal prisons for drug offenses; arrest and prosecution nonviolent drug offenders at the state and local levels; and marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other abstinence programs.

The AP concludes its report with the following cautionary words: “This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.”[http://nevergetbusted.com/2010/articles/ap-us-drug-war-has-met-none-of-its-goals]

The line between the legal and the illegal, like that between the moral and immoral or the licit and illicit, is arbitrary.  It is a terrain of social conflict that changes over time through popular struggle.  At any one time, the line appears “fixed” as much by moral authority as by formal legal regulation and enforcement practice.  However, the appearance of “fixed,” to the extent that it can be, is in name only.

The failed temperance campaign that culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment establishing 13 years of Prohibition (and which was repealed by the 21st Amendment) unraveled after the 1929 stock market crash.  Today’s “war on drugs” is unraveling.  Its failure is evident in the ever-growing costs related to enforcement, at the federal, state and city levels, as well as the social and personal costs incurred by those who succumb to their drug of choice.

It appears that a goodly proportion of Americans, either just once for fun or on a more continuing basis, have taken an illegal substance or have a family member, friend or neighbor whose been arrested due to a drug-related offense (including alcohol-related acts).  This common awareness underlies the nationwide effort to establish a new drug policy, one from the bottom up. It is defined by efforts to legalize medical marijuana clinics (now legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia) and to decriminalize “non-hard” drugs like marijuana and some party drugs (e.g., LSD).  In the wake of the fiscal crises faced by many states, there has been a move to reduce the nonviolent prison population, particularly those arrested for a nonviolent drug-related offense.

In the wake of the Great Depression, America ended Prohibition, an unworkable and expensive moralistic campaign masquerading as public policy.  (The church had taken control of the state, imposing its temperance beliefs as national policy.) As economic and social pressures mount during the aftermath of the Great Recession, there will likely be a significant increase in all manner of drug taking throughout the nation. This will, hopefully, lead to a rethinking of the nation’s failed “war on drugs.” Lets hope.

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America is a drugged-out nation.  To appreciate the enormity of drug use, one needs to acknowledge the scope of “drug” taking.  The first step in this process is to give up the fiction that separates the legal from the illegal, the regulated from the un-regulated and the over-the-counter from backstreet drugs.  A second step is to map out the labyrinth-like world of the abused and/or addictive drugs and see how they saturate social life.

Ken Liska, in “Drugs and the Human Body,” defines a drug as “any absorbed substance that changes or enhances any physical or psychological function in the body.”

The following overview of drug taking in America is necessarily cursory, outlining the boundaries to this (in a 1950’s film noirsense) underworld.  Information is drawn predominately from federal sources, including the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Legal unregulated “drugs”

Today, coffee, sugar and chocolate are widely enjoyed products that some considering harmful “drugs.”   Many, many Americans can’t image starting the day without that first cup of java, cut with a hearty dose of sugar and topped off with a tasty chocolate donut.


One of the first “drugs” to take hold of the West was coffee, introduced into Europe in 1645.  In England, for example, coffee houses flourished, serving as the era’s “speakeasies,” inebriating the new merchant class.  Over the next century, efforts by the powers-that-be to close these houses of ill repute were repeatedly rebuffed.  It was not until 1820 that coffee’s active ingredient, caffeine, a psychoactive stimulant, was identified.  Between 2001-2004 some 265 cases of caffeine overdoses ended up in Emergency Rooms visits.  While medical authorities do not list caffeine as an addictive drug, some Christian religious groups do so and encourage their members to avoid it


Coffee drinking is aided by another often-alleged addictive substance, sugar.  Sugar has been in the West since the Crusades, brought back from the Holy Lands as a new spice.  In the U.S, sugar is considered a food but has no nutritional value.  However, withdrawal from sugar can be as difficult as cutting coffee or alcohol.  Many warn that people couldn’t get enough sugar and that it made people hyperirritable.  Research shows that sugar affects opioids and dopamine in the brain, and thus might be addictive.  Some researchers have found that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts eat a lot of sugar.


While Columbus first brought back cocoa beans to Europe, Cortès popularized it in Spain in the 1520s; a century later it spread to the rest of Europe.  Chocolate, along with other sweet and high-fat foods, releases serotonin that makes people happier. Cocoa products contain neuroactive alkaloids common to wine, beer and liquor.  Today, many people, but especially woman, are called “chocoholics” and, when denied their “drug” of choice, suffer withdrawal symptoms, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and pre-menstrual syndrome.

Legal regulated drugs

Three other legal drugs, alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications, are regulated to varying degrees by individual states, localities and/or the federal government.


Alcohol, like tobacco, is an over-the-counter consumer product regulated principally by buyer age requirements.  With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, alcohol has become a huge industry.  According to an alcohol-industry trade association,  “the U.S. beverage alcohol industry contributed nearly $382 billion to the U.S. total economic activity in 2007.”  (“Contributed” includes wages, taxes and a nebulous category dubbed “economic activity” seems to mean sales.)  Its legality comes with a significant social cost.

Ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) is the intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine and liquor.  A standard drink contains 0.6 ounces of pure ethanol; this is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces (a “shot”) of 80-proof distilled spirits.

In 2009, 52 percent of Americans age 12 and older are considered regular drinkers, having consumed alcohol at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey.  More revealing, federal data shows that 24 percent of drinkers had binged (5+ drinks within 2 hours) and 7 percent drank heavily (5+ drinks on 5+ occasions).*  However, per capita alcohol consumption has declined over 12 percent over the last three decades, to 2.31 in 2007 gallons from 2.64 gallons in 1977.

Since 1982, the number of alcohol-related driving fatalities has been cut nearly in half: in 2008, 13,846 people died in car crashes due to drunk drivers compared to 26,173 in 1982.  Mirroring the decline in drunk-driving fatalities, the rate of drunk driving for the 2006-2009 is estimated at 13.2 percent, a decline from the 14.6 percent for the 2002-2005 period.

In 2008, 70 percent of the an estimated 189,000 alcohol-related emergency room visits made by patients aged 12 to 20 involved alcohol only;

30.0 percent involved alcohol in combination with other drugs.  Between 1975 and 2005, deaths due to liver cirrhosis has remained relatively consistent at approximately 12,900 deaths per year.

[*Data drawn from National Survey on Drug Use and Health at www.samhsa.gov]


Cigarettes have (almost) lost their cool.  Of Americans 18 years and older, an estimated 46 million still smoke cigarettes. Smoking is more common among men (24%) than women (18%).  In the U.S., cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths, accounting for approximately 443,000 deaths (or 1 of every 5 deaths) each year.

In the nearly half century since the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report linking smoking to cancer in 1964, there has had a dramatic decline is smoking.  Since 1998, tobacco sales in the U.S. have declined by 2 percent a year; since 2000, there has been an 18 percent decline in the number of cigarette packs sold: 17.4 billion packs were sold in 2007 compared to 21.1 billion packs in 2000.

However, this has taken place with a significant uptick in the number of “cigarette pack equivalents” (CPE’s), non-cigarette nicotine product, totaling 1.10 billion CPEs.  These include: 714 million moist snuff, 256 million roll-your-own tobacco and 130 million small cigars.

Prescription medications

A doctor’s prescription is required to “legally” purchase a pharmaceutical medical drug.  In 2009, 16 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the prior year prior.  From 2004 to 2008, the reported incidents of prescription drug overdoses more than doubled to 305,885 from 144,644.

Among the leading abused prescription drugs are: opioids (for pain), depressants (for anxiety and sleep disorders) and stimulants (for ADHD and narcolepsy).  Opioids include OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet; depressants or tranquilizers include barbiturates such as pentobarbital sodium (e.g., Nembutal) and benzodiazepines such as diazepam (aka Valium) and alprazolam (aka Xanax); and stimulants include dextroamphetamine (e.g., Dexedrine), methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin and Concerta) and amphetamines (e.g., Adderall).

With regard to antidepressants, in 2008, adolescents made 23,124 visits to an emergency room for drug-related suicide attempts, and young adults made 38,036 such visits; of these visits, 23 percent of the adolescents and 18 percent of young adults did so for “OD-ing” on an antidepressant.

Since 1998, there has been a significant increase in the hospital admissions of benzodiazepines tranquilizers like Valium and Xanax.  While hospital admissions over reactions to depressants increased 11 percent between 1998 and 2008, benzodiazepine-related admissions nearly tripled.

Prescription steroids, which increase muscle mass and may be prescribed for muscle-wasting conditions like cancer and AIDS, are also subject to abuse by athletes and non-athletes.  Most often, they are taken to improve the user’s appearance or performance.  Good luck.

Washington’s Attorney General, Rob McKenna, among a growing number of state and federal law-enforcement officials, has called the rise in prescription drugs an “epidemic.”  Federal data shows that among young people ages 12-17, prescription drugs have become the second most abused illegal drug, behind marijuana.  Teens report they get prescription drugs from parents’ medicine cabinets, other people’s prescriptions and that they are “available everywhere.”

Unregulated illegal drugs

These drugs make up what are known as the “hard” drugs, easy to abuse and seriously addictive.  They include cocaine, heroin and marijuana; many consider marijuana a “soft” drug, like alcohol, and should be decriminalized and its sale regulated like tobacco.


Cocaine, also known as coke, snow and flake, is a powerful stimulate that can be snorted, injected or smoked; crack is cocaine hydrochloride powder processed to form a rock crystal that is then smoked.  Cocaine gives people a real high, making them feel euphoric and energetic; however, it increases blood pressure and heart rate, often leading to heart attacks, strokes and seizures.  In 2009, 4.8 million Americans age 12 and older had abused cocaine in some form and 1.0 million had abused crack at least once in the previous year.


Heroin, also known as H, smack or junk, is the hardest of the “hard” drugs.  Processed from morphine, it usually appears as a white or brown powder or as a black, sticky substance.  Injecting, snorting or smoking H makes one feel euphoric; however, it depresses breathing, thus, an overdose can be fatal.  In 2009, 605,000 Americans age 12 and older had abused heroin at least once in the prior year.


Marijuana, derived from the dried parts of the Cannabis sativa hemp plant, is the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S. In 2009, 28.5 million Americans age 12 and older had smoked marijuana at least once in the previous year.  Known as pot, mary jane, ganga, weed or grass, smoking it makes one feel euphoric, often distorting perceptions, memory recall and conventional linear thinking.  One feels high.

Unregulated club drugs

These drugs make up what are known as the “party” drugs, taken at bars, nightclubs and concerts; they are even easier to abuse and can lead to serious abuse.  While club goers might take cocaine, heroine and marijuana to enhance a good time, a crop of specialty drugs have emerged designed tp enhance a singular good time.  These include LSD (aka acid), MDMA (aka ecstasy) and PCP (aka angel dust) as well as Rohypnol (aka roofies), GHB (aka liquid ecstasy) and ketamine (aka special K, vitamin K, jet).  And there’s also methamphetamine that is really in a class by itself.


Acid became popular during the oh-so psychedelic ‘60s, altering perceptions and invoking a world of hallucinations.  Acid “trips” can last about 12 hours and, for some, fostering enormous pleasure, for others terrifying delusions.  In 2009, 779,000 Americans age 12 and older had abused LSD at least once in the prior year.


MDMA (aka 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) better known as ecstasy, is a synthetic stimulate with psychoactive properties.  In 2009, 2.8 million Americans age 12 and older had abused MDMA at least once in the prior year.  Most disturbing, a 2010 NIDA study found that 4.5 percent of 12th graders had used MDMA at least once in the prior year.


PCP (phencyclidine) is a synthetic drug popularly known as angel dust, ozone, wack and rocket fuel and can be snorted, smoked or eaten.  It is a “dissociative” drug, distorting perceptions of sight and sound.  However, many users complain of unpleasant psychological effects that mimic schizophrenia, including delusions, hallucinations and extreme anxiety.  In 2009, 122,000 Americans age 12 and older had abused PCP at least once in the prior year.


Methamphetamine is a very addictive stimulant that goes by a variety of street names, including meth, speed, chalk, ice, crystal and glass.  More revealing, it has become known as white people’s crack and is very toxic to the central nervous system.  In 2009, 1.2 million Americans age 12 and older had abused methamphetamine at least once in the prior year.

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Abstinence was imposed on the nation in 1920 and repealed in 1933; the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition is the only Amendment to be repealed.  In the early 20th century, Americans could get ripped on good-old Coca-Cola.  Originally intended as a patent medicine, Coke once contained an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. By the ‘20s, the coke was out but caffeine gave the drink a jolt.

In 1937, just four years after the passage of the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act.  During the ‘30s, hemp was popular and profitable, used for a variety of commercial purposes, including the smoking kind. The Act sought to garner the federal government much needed tax revenues without outlawing marijuana production or consumption.

In 1970, President Nixon championed the Controlled Substances Act that superseded the Marihuana Act and started the war on drugs.  In a 1970 speech, he declared, “this nation faces a major crisis in terms of the increasing use of drugs, particularly among our young people.”  A year later, he upped the ante: “Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”   America’s war on “domestic terrorism” had begun.

Now, four decades later, the forces of moral order, in league with the police-corporate complex, have scooped up $1 trillion and left behind a failed, second temperance movement, the “war on drugs.”  These drug-opportunists have left wrecked lives in their wake.  An untold number of drug-related dead bodies and destroyed lives litter the national landscape.

Nationally, prescription drug abuse is killing more people than crack cocaine in the 1980s and heroin in the 1970s combined. Now, as the Great Recession begins to draw out to (dare I say) a possible second Great Depression, financial reality might force those in power (whether moralist, politician, police or greedy corporate con-artist milking the drug scam) to abandon the prohibitionist mindset that has been in-force since Nixon.

As the Great Recession drags on and misery intensifies, the ab/use of both legally-regulated and illegal drugs will likely increase.  It’s time to rethink America’s failed drug policy.  Get ready for the coming drug tsunami.

David Rosen can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.