Close up of the 1940 drug store at the entrance to the core exhibition " Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History." The store front is a 1940s drug store. In the window are toys, soda fountain items, personal hygiene materials.

Illegal Drugs in America

Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History

Since the 19th century when Americans first discovered new wonder drugs like morphine, heroin, and cocaine, our society has confronted the problem of drug abuse and addiction.

When the 20th century began, the United States—grappling with its first drug epidemic—gradually instituted effective restrictions: at home through domestic law enforcement and overseas by spearheading a world movement to limit opium and coca crops. By World War II, American drug use had become so rare, it was seen as a marginal social problem. The first epidemic was forgotten.

During the 1960s, drugs like marijuana, amphetamines, and psychedelics came on the scene, and a new generation embraced drugs. With the drug culture exploding, our government developed new laws and agencies to address the problem. In 1973, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was created to enforce federal drug laws. In the 1970s, cocaine reappeared. Then, a decade later, crack appeared, spreading addiction and violence at epidemic levels.

Today, the DEA’s biggest challenge is the dramatic change in organized crime. While American criminals once controlled drug trafficking on U.S. soil, today sophisticated and powerful criminal groups headquartered in foreign countries control the drug trade in the United States.

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