In 1999 illegal drug use resulted in 555,000 emergency room visits, of which 30 percent were for cocaine, 16 percent for marijuana or hashish, 15 percent for heroin or morphine, and 2 percent for amphetamines. Alcohol in combination with other drugs accounted for 35 percent. This is not the first time that the U.S. has suffered a widespread health crisis brought on by drug abuse. In the 1880s (legal) drug companies began selling medications containing cocaine, which had only recently been synthesized from the leaves of the coca plant. Furthermore, pure cocaine could be bought legally at retail stores. Soon there were accounts of addiction and sudden death from cardiac arrest and stroke among users, as well as cocaine-related crime. Much of the blame for crime fell on blacks, although credible proof of the allegations never surfaced. Reports of health and crime problems associated with the drug contributed to rising public pressure for reform, which led in time to a ban on retail sales of cocaine under the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914. This and later legislation contributed to the near elimination of the drug in the 1920s.
Cocaine use revived in the 1970s, long after its deleterious effects had faded from memory. By the mid-1980s history repeated itself as the U.S. rediscovered the dangers of the drug, including its new form, crack. Crack was cheap and could be smoked, a method of delivery that intensified the pleasure and the risk. Media stories about its evils, sometimes exaggerated, were apparently the key element in turning public sentiment strongly in favor of harsh sentences, even for possession. The result was one of the most important federal laws of recent years, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It was enacted hurriedly without benefit of committee hearings, so great was the pressure to do something about the problem. Because crack was seen as uniquely addictive and destructive, the law specified that the penalty for possession of five grams would be the same as that for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.
This article was originally published with the title Coke, Crack, Pot, Speed et al..