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The 50’s were an interesting time in history. They are kind of overlooked in the history of drug abuse but the truth is they are what made the 60s happen. In fact much of the drug use that is seen in the 60s didn’t start in the 60s but in the 50s with the Beat Generation. The 50’s also were frighteningly fraught with misunderstanding and ignorance when it comes to drugs, drug abuse and addiction and with this misunderstanding came very heavy sentences for using certain drugs such as marijuana. The 50’s were where many of the beliefs, laws, and “acts” we have today dealing with drug abuse and drugs, first came into existence.

This is history of drug abuse: The 50’s

In the 1950s, use of marijuana and heroin increased, along with that of amphetamines and tranquilizers. There was also the invention of LSD in the 1940s and tests done with that were performed in the 1950s. The most popular illegal drugs were marijuana and heroin.  Heroin became predominant in the urban areas after World War II where it was widely distributed. Marijuana saw an increase in usage during this time period, particularly among the youth. Prior to the 1950s, drug problems were considered an urban problem regulated to certain communities.

Drug abuse in the 50’s: The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation was a group of American post-World War II writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. Central elements of “Beat” culture included rejection of received standards, innovations in style, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexualities, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and explicit portrayals of the human condition.

The original members of the Beat Generation used a number of different drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, Benzedrine, morphine, and later psychedelic drugs including peyote, and LSD. Much of this drug use was “experimental,” in that they were often initially unfamiliar with the effects of these drugs. They were inspired by intellectual interest, as well as simple self-indulgence. With this experimental use all the claims we hear even today started; that some of these drugs can enhance creativity, insight or productivity, and the belief that the drugs are a key influence on the social events of the time.

Marijuana use in the 50s: Anslinger’s War on Marijuana

Anslinger stopped the availability of pot for scientific studies. It still remains a mystery where he got his information about marijuana back in the 1950s, when he announced in the early 1950s that marijuana was a direct and inescapable step to heroin addiction. He also declared that Communists were behind the distribution of marijuana in the U.S. in order to make Americans “weak” and easy to conquer. In the Cold War hysteria of the 50s, this campaign was his most successful yet. He convinced President Truman to sign the Briggs Act which substantially increased penalties for marijuana possession. In 1958, following the lead of other states, Virginia passed one of the harshest new laws for marijuana which required a minimum twenty years in jail for marijuana possession, with no parole. At that same time, Virginia law provided for a minimum fifteen years for murder and ten years for rape.

Medicine drug abuse in the 50s:  The development of prescription and non-prescription medication

After WWII there was an amazing development of new medicines: tranquilizers, new amphetamines and barbiturates, new opioids (synthesized opium products). Weight loss products were sold containing amphetamines and ephedrine. National marketing of these medicines increased their use. This post-war era brought with it affluence, social change and mass use of medicines and drugs. Many of the stimulant, tranquilizer and sedative medicines were misused. Think, Elvis.

Amphetamines and barbiturates were called “mother’s little helpers” as many women developed a habit for the stimulation and sedative effects of these medicines. The predecessors to the modern Drug Enforcement Administration and other government and private organizations began setting up education programs to stem the tide of abuse and addiction that rose with the creation of these medicines.

This is when Durham Humphrey Bill set up prescription and non-prescription categories for all medicines. This arrangement of prescription vs. OTC was put in place by policy and was then made law. It also set up limits on the number of times a prescription can be refilled.  A few years after that the Narcotics Control Act updated restrictions and penalties for smuggling and distribution of marijuana and narcotics as well as eliminating the suspension of sentences or probation if convicted. Another act was, The Harrison Narcotics Act which set up a schedule using letters to indicate the degree of potential abuse a medicine has. The schedule used A, B and X in a decreasing level of potential abuse.

Heroin use in the 50s: Government works with gangsters

Heroin in use in the 50s was really limited to urban areas and was making its way into the jazz music scene. In the U.S., the heroin trade between 1948 and 1972 was dominated by Corsican gangsters and U.S. Mafia drug distributors. The raw Turkish opium was refined in Marseilles laboratories (the “French Connection,”) and sold to junkies on New York City streets.

In the 1950s, the U.S. preoccupation with stopping the spread of Communism led to alliances with drug warlords in the Golden Triangle. The U.S. and France supplied the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms, and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result was an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts. During the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a charter airline, Air America, to transport raw opium from Burma and Laos. During this period, the number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reached an estimated 750,000.

LSD use in the 50s: Military and government use

During the 1950s the US Army, along with the CIA, researched the uses of LSD as a potential ‘truth drug’ for use in brainwashing. Their experiments involved giving LSD to everyone from CIA agents to prostitutes, and recording the results. Soon, psychiatrists also became interested in its potential therapeutic benefits. Although LSD was still being imported from Switzerland at this time, the drug’s formula could be purchased for a small sum from the US patent office, after which a user could synthesize LSD himself. In 1966, after widespread abuse and ill-effects caused in part by people making the drug incorrectly, LSD was outlawed in California. In 1970, it was listed by Congress as a Schedule I substance, meaning it has no recognized medicinal or therapeutic uses.

The 50’s history of drug abuse was not as much characterized by the drug users themselves but the bigger picture going on around them. The government was highly involved because so many of the drugs used in the 50’s were still legal and later on, of course, became illegal. The 50’s built the foundation of the drug system and use we have today; in the laws, scheduling, use, and beliefs.



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