Timeline: A century-long look back at drug history and headlines in the United States, Pittsburgh

BY Lindsay Patross

April 11, 2018

What can the past teach us about the opioid epidemic that is currently ravaging the nation? Is the response by government and media to this drug crisis different?

To understand previous drug epidemics, we looked to the history of drug policy in the United States and news clips from Pittsburgh and national newspapers. A century-long look back reveals a story of repeated attempts to blame specific groups of people for using and spreading the drugs. Each epidemic is also marked by a solution that is predominantly focused on cutting off the supply of the substance. The substances change over generations, but the plot of control and supply management is similar. The retrospective reveals a conflict that emerges in the response to each epidemic: best practices and research versus the politics. Public policy, and the media coverage that follows, is often contradictory to the recommendations of scientists and experts.

Dating back to the end of the 1800s with the regulation of opium to 1920 with the 18th Amendment and Prohibition, there has been a focus on associating substances with crime and violence. It is interesting to note the terminology that has been used over time to describe drug use, drug users and the impact on society. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” The use of the term ‘war’ and following an attack strategy set the tone for the next 40 years of drug policy.

The following timeline highlights some of the key dates in the history of U.S. drug policy as well as some of the ways that drug use and epidemics have been portrayed in the media. Clips from Pittsburgh papers give a sense of how our city responded to a growing crisis, a few regional ties to the making of U.S. drug policy and even a drug scandal involving the Pittsburgh Pirates that made national headlines.

Tell us your story

What do you remember learning about drugs in your youth? What do you think was the defining drug story of your time — locally or nationally? How has drug use affected you or your family? We want to hear from you. We will share excerpts of submissions on PublicSource's social media accounts.

This story was fact-checked by Juliette Rihl.

This project has been made possible with the generous support of Staunton Farm Foundation.

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