The History of Drug Abuse and Addiction in America and the Origins of Drug Treatment LSD part 3

As mentioned in the last article, early in the 20th century the American press was picking its “drug-of-choice” to demonize, and by the 1930’s marijuana was Drug Treatment Orginslabeled as wicked as sex had been in Victorian England. However, in the 1940’s drug abuse and addiction were not problems of enough magnitude to capture space in newspapers since Hitler and the buildup to WW II dominated America’s attention. By the 1950’s the prevailing concept of drug abuse and addiction was that of heroin addiction on the streets and alleys of urban ghettos.

The news media believed and reported that drug abuse and addiction was a problem among blacks ‘because of their newly found freedoms after WW II.’ How much of this perception was blind guesswork and how much was blatant racism is difficult to assess, but the truth is that drug abuse and addiction could be found in every racial group and in every urban center.

Hollywood offered the public a different perception of addiction in the post-war 50’s with the release of the film, The Man with the Golden Arm. The movie became controversial because its hero, Frank Sinatra, was a successful, white musician, but addicted to heroin. In the film, with the help of his beautiful wife, Kim Novak, he was able to recover from his addiction. Most of the public felt that heroin should be seen as a ghetto drug and not have any mainstream image.

The medical community at the time portrayed drug addiction in young addicts as having its roots in psychosis and neurosis. Terms such as ‘weak ego functioning,’ ‘defective superego,’ and ‘inadequate masculine identification’ demonstrate the 1950 American viewpoint of drug abuse and addiction. There was no drug rehabilitation treatment other than the isolation ward in general hospitals and psychiatric hospitals.

The 1960’s were a time of civil rights movements, political assassinations, anti-war protests, and ghetto riots. Naturally, these events shaped attitudes regarding drug use and abuse. Drug use during the 60’s was becoming mainstream, almost a right-of-passage for those who wanted to show they weren’t part of the ‘establishment’ (another term of the day.) By the end of the 60’s, America was being called ‘the addicted society.’

Given the civil unrest and young persons’ distrust of ‘anyone over 30,’ the climate was ripe for experimenting with drugs that were said to alter consciousness, the major candidate being LSD. Dr. Alber Hoffman of Sandoz Research Labs in Switzerland first isolated LSD in 1938, but it remained unappreciated until 1943 when Dr. Hoffman absorbed a small amount of LSD through his skin in a lab accident and began to hallucinate. He experienced the first LSD trip. In the 1960’s, Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (who later would change his name to Baba Ram Das) began seriously ‘experimenting’ with LSD, including their circle of colleagues and friends. They both were dismissed from their positions at Harvard, but welcomed their new role as ‘gurus’ of the expanding social movement to use (and abuse) drugs in America. The discovery and use of LSD divided America and may have fueled the social revolution that ushered in liberal attitudes and social change as never witnessed before. Drug abuse and addiction became badges of the ‘counterculture.’

It would take more than a decade for the pendulum to swing back.


Department of Drug Education, Prevention, and Information

Narconon International

find more lsd drug information

Article 2Article 4

Feel free to browse through this series of articles to learn the history of drugs and treatment in America.


Handbook of Drug Control In the United States by James A. Inciardi. Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 1990.

Timothy Leary, “Introduction,” in LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug, ed. David Solomon (New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1964)

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