Drug use in the U.S. and its policy response took a decidedly marked turn in the late 1960s driven largely by the baby boomer counter culture.
The growing prosperity of the 76 million most educated generation to-date along with their sense of invincibility and quest for new experiences came to coalesce with historical moral causes of the time: civil and women’s rights, the environment and Vietnam War protests. The cumulative assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and growing discontent over the Vietnam War, and eventually Watergate, emboldened this restless generation into believing that their parents and their contemporaries, including the entire establishment, had lost their claim to the moral high ground. They felt vindicated in debunking America’s traditional values and began embracing drugs like marijuana and LSD as inseparable ingredients of their crusade.
Using marijuana, and to a lesser degree LSD, baby boomers rapidly moved drugs from the fringes of society into the mainstream. Whereas only 5% of American college students had ever used marijuana in 1967, two years later that figure jumped to 22%. Amphetamines (speed) remained confined to small subcultures, such as bikers, while heroin was still used mainly by jazz, and a growing number of rock, musicians. Sadly, many returning U.S. Vietnam veterans became addicted to heroin after being exposed to some of the purest and cheapest heroin available in the world.
Along with Vietnam War protests, race riots and a general rise in crime, drug use rose to the forefront of U.S. public policy. A 1971 Gallup poll placed drugs third on the list of the most serious issues the country faced, after Vietnam and the economy.
Marijuana remained popular over the coming decades, culminating in movements to legalize both its medical and recreational use. LSD use waned due mainly to the complexity in making it and a series of major confiscations of laboratories in California in the 1980s where most LSD was produced. Heroin stayed in the inner cities until the prescription opiate boom, which began in the mid-90s and led to the surge of its use and addiction. The opiate problem has been compounded by a growing steady cheap supply of pure black tar heroin from Mexico.
In 2015, for the first time ever heroin overdoses alone killed more Americans than firearms. All drugs combined (excluding alcohol) were responsible for more American deaths than care accidents. In the 1980s, cocaine became the party drug, while its highly addictive derivate of crack plagued America’s inner cities. MDMA or Ecstasy emerged as the party drug of the 90s and crystal meth began infecting mostly rural populations in the Mid- and South-West.
Using annual prevalence for 18-year olds as the benchmark, drug use grew over the past four decades to 48% during the short-lived Ford Administration and ultimately peaked at 53% during Carter’s term, although the high prevalence of marijuana tends to distort the percentages. Use progressively declined to less than 27% by the end George H. W. Bush’s term, only to steadily increase thereafter and reach more than 42% by 1997. As of 2014, annual prevalence among 18-year olds was 40%.