The History of Drug Abuse and How It’s Changed

The history of drug abuse extends much further back in time than many people think. For instance, alcoholic beverages were being produced as early as 7000 B.C., according to research published by the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, hallucinogens have been found in caves in Peru that date back between 8600 and 5600 B.C.

One of the best ways to understand how we can offer guidance and treatment is to understand the history of drug use, research the positive and negative effects of drugs and find trends in the 21st century.

Recent Trends in Drug Abuse

During recent years, much of the reports about drug use have been bad, though there are some good signs. For example, illicit drug use by youths is down across all substances from a peak of 34.1 percent in 1997 to 27.2 percent in 2014. However, those stats don’t paint a complete picture as there are specific instances where drug use has only worsened. For instance, from 2000 to 2013, the age-adjusted rate for drug-poisoning deaths involving heroin nearly quadrupled from 0.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2000 to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2013, and most of that increase occurred after 2010.

Evolution of Drug Addiction in the 21st Century

Humans have been taking mind-altering substances for thousands of years. And, in some cultures, drug and alcohol consumption have always been a part of daily life. However, science and technology have changed our drug use from natural substances accessed in prehistoric times, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Cannabis
  • Opium
  • Blue Lotus
  • Cocaine
  • Tobacco

Now, in the 21st century, though we use many of the same substances, science and technology have increased drug and alcohol potency in addition to creating new drugs and synthetics.

21st Century Drugs

Some of the drugs created since the 1800s are:

  • LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide)
  • Amphetamines
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Crack cocaine
  • Morphine

As more drugs have been prescribed in recent years, withdrawal from these drugs, whether prescribed or not, can be intense, especially in patients still facing extreme pain.

Combined with the pressures of modern society, some people turn to illegal drugs as an escape and means of self-medicating.

Increased Potency of Drugs

During the last century, science and technology have led us to create more powerful drugs, which has had an impact on drug abuse in the 21st century. Some of the changes in drug potency include:

  • Marijuana — THC percentage used to be around 10 percent, now some are around 30 percent, with the most potent at 55 percent. Other studies have found increased purity of 160 percent from 1990 to 2007.
  • Alcohol — A “small beer” is a lager or ale that was popular in Medieval Europe and North America. It had an ABV between 0.5 percent and 2.8 percent compared to beers now that typically range from 4.0 percent to 6.5 percent or higher.
  • Heroin — Studies have shown the purity of heroin has increased from 60 percent between 1990 and 2007.
  • Cocaine — Some studies have shown an increased purity of 11 percent from 1990 to 2007.

Changing View on Drugs in the 21
st Century

One theory about drug use in the 21st century is the changing sentiment about drugs in the United States. Since the 1960s, the overall sentiment toward drug use has been changing. And, since 2000, this sentiment has led to more states reducing punishments and laxing laws.

Marijuana is probably the most representative drug of the changing sentiment in the U.S. For instance, in 1969, only 12 percent of Americans favored legalization. According to Pew Research, that number grew to 61 percent of Americans in 2017.

This has led to 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico legalizing marijuana for medical use. Plus, there are eight states and the District of Columbia where recreational marijuana use is legal.

Changing View on Punishments

It’s not just the legality of drugs, but also the changing view about whether or not to punish or treat those who have been arrested for illegal drug use or sales. This has been a topic in Master of public health programs and the field of addiction treatment for a number of years as we continue to try to help those addicted to drugs and alcohol become functioning and contributing members of society. For example, a 2012 drug use survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 63 percent of Americans believed that state governments moving away from mandatory prison terms for non-violent drug crimes is a good thing. This is a substantial change from 2001, when 47 percent of Americans thought mandatory prison was a good thing. In addition, 67 percent say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for people who use illegal drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. This is compared to 26 percent who think the focus should be more on prosecuting illegal drug users.

Changing Demographic of Drug Users

Another contributing factor to the changes in drug use in the 21st century are the changing demographics of drug users. In fact, recent trends, such as those listed below, are completely different than during the second half of the 20th century.

Wealthier Population

When the term “drug addict” comes to mind, many people think of the homeless or poor. However, that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in the 21st century.

In fact, according to the Healthy Kids Survey in 2007, wealthy children from Alameda and Contra Costa counties in California were more likely to use drugs than their peers in poorer counties.

Some of the reasons for this increase include that they may have:

  • “Rich kids syndrome,” where parental, societal and professional obligations lead to less family-centered interactions
  • More time with hired help
  • Overscheduled lives that create mental distress and a lack of family closeness
  • More disposable income
  • More pressure to succeed

Baby Boomers

According to two studies by Columbia University’s School of Public Health, adults aged 50-64 were in the only age group with increases in non-daily marijuana use both before and after 2007. If these trends continue, marijuana use by this age group could surpass the 35-49 age group in coming years. But why are Baby Boomers using more drugs?

Some of the reasons include:

  • They were the generation coming of age in the 60s and 70s, a time of heightened drug use.
  • Many stopped drug use to raise families and are now retired empty nesters
  • Many suffer from chronic pain and impaired mobility
  • Some had drug issues before the age of 25 that are reappearing
  • Coping with feelings of being invisible and alienated
  • Facing big life changes, such as downsizing, leaving behind familiar settings, and losing friends and family.


Throughout the 20th century, women used less drugs and entered rehab far less than men. However, of the women who did use drugs, a study by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found that women used drugs more frequently, used harder drugs and used them for different reasons. As a result, the study found that substance abuse treatment programs originally designed for men may not be as effective for women. Plus, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, as many as 4.5 million women over the age of 12 have a substance abuse disorder. In 2013, of the 6.5 million Americans who misused or abused prescription drugs, more than half were female.

Evolving Needs of Drug Care

As drug trends continue to change, so do the needs of rehab centers and medical professionals trying to help those overcome addiction. Keep reading to learn how journaling can improve your mental health or how you can help others by earning a graduate degree in substance abuse counseling.

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