The United States has worried seriously about citizen drug use for more than 40 years. Here’s President Richard Nixon back in 1971: “America’s public enemy number one 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.” Concern grew in the 1980s with the escalation in the use of crack cocaine, inspiring President Ronald Reagan to create the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related legislation and research.
It also led his wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan, to start her “ Just Say No” campaign, designed to keep children away from drugs (or drugs away from children). This resulted in a number of stilted television appearances and PR opportunities. Around this same time, we saw the emergence of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program ( D.A.R.E.), an anti-drug collaboration between local police departments and public schools.
All of these efforts had a pretty limited effect, but they did make arguments about the evils of marijuana and other recreational drugs familiar to every American, so much so that Ronald Reagan could say with a straight face, during a 1986 address to the nation on the campaign against drug abuse: “Let us not forget who we are. Drug abuse is a repudiation of everything America is.” And six years later, when he appeared on Larry King Live as part of his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton described his experience with pot like this: “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I didn’t try it again.”
Such an anxiousness with regard to drugs made it seem as if this were a country overrun with them, with junkies in every alley and pushers on every corner. As James Swartz writes in Substance Abuse in America: “[I]t was the changing profile of those using illegal drugs, as much as the increase in the number of illegal drug users that was causing consternation among the public and politicians. In the 1960s, the use of illegal drugs, particularly marijuana, went mainstream. The American middle class, particularly college students, was using drugs in unprecedented numbers.”
But all of this makes it sound as if we had never seen drug use like this before. In fact, research indicates that drug use has been common throughout much of history.
In particular, they probably used a lot of drugs in the ancient world. This information comes to us courtesy of David Hillman, a writer and former Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin.
[The West’s] … founding fathers were drug users, plain and simple; they grew the stuff, they sold the stuff, and, most important, they used the stuff. The modern antidrug campaign is not a democratic movement at all; the ancient world didn’t have a Nancy Reagan, it didn’t wage a billion-dollar drug war, it didn’t imprison people who used drugs, and it didn’t embrace sobriety as a virtue. It indulged … and from this world in which drugs were a universally accepted part of life sprang art, literature, science, and philosophy.
For his dissertation, about “pharmacy in Roman literature,” Hillman looked into historic writing and learned that the classical world was full of drug users. Everyone, from farmers and merchants to senators and emperors, seemed to use illicit substances in one form or another. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, was thought to be addicted to opium—he was at least a regular user of the drug—and he died more than 1,800 years prior to Reagan’s address.