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June 25, 1997

Lessons From US History of Drug Use

JAMA. 1997;277(24):1919-1921. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540480019010

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If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us.—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, a popular product administered to teething, colicky, or "nervous" children. Like many patent medicines that were not regulated by law until 1906, this mixture contained opiates.

ALTHOUGH AMERICA's love-hate relationship with psychoactive substances is older than the nation itself, the interest of historians in drug use and abuse in the United States is a fairly new phenomenon.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of historians and other scholars have turned their attention to the social, economic, and political forces that have driven America's cultural pendulum back and forth repeatedly between celebrating mind-altering substances and condemning them along with their consumers.

Evidence of this