Decades of Drug Use: Data From the '60s and '70s

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

This is the first of a three-part series examining the history of public opinion on illegal drug use. This segment focuses on the 1960s and 1970s.

The war on drugs has been raging for decades. There is no sign of victory, or even detente. Although they're swamped with anti-drug messages, kids keep taking illegal drugs, and the drugs are getting more dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that almost half (47%) of all high school students had used marijuana at least once. Ten percent had tried a form of cocaine.

Since 1969, the first year Gallup asked about illegal drug use, Americans have grown increasingly more concerned about the effects of drugs on young people. For instance, in 1969, 48% of Americans told Gallup that drug use was a serious problem in their community. In 1986, a majority of Americans, 56%, said that the government spent "too little" money fighting drugs. By 1995, 31% said drug use was a "crisis" and an additional 63% said it was "a serious problem" for the nation as a whole.

Why haven't the decades of anti-drug messages solved this problem? The blame tends to be spread across a variety of factors -- unsuccessful government programs, underfunded law enforcement, irresponsible media content -- but part of the problem has certainly been the inefficacy of drug prevention programs. Examining how Americans' attitudes have shifted during the 30+-year history of the drug prevention movement can help us see what the nation has done wrong, and what the nation is starting to do right.

The 1960s

The 1960s brought us tie-dye, sit-ins and fears of large-scale drug use. Hippies smoked marijuana, kids in ghettos pushed heroin, and Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, urged the world to try LSD. In popular imagination, the 1960s were the heyday of illegal drug use -- but historical data indicate they probably weren't. In fact, surveys show that drug abuse was comparably rare, as was accurate information about the effects of illegal drugs. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 4% of American adults said they had tried marijuana. Thirty-four percent said they didn't know the effects of marijuana, but 43% thought it was used by many or some high school kids. In 1972, 60% of Americans thought that marijuana was physically addictive (research shows that it is generally not physically addictive because regular users rarely show physical withdrawal symptoms, but marijuana can be psychologically addictive).

Alana Anderson, a child custody officer, graduated from college in 1969. "My generation was told that marijuana caused acne, blindness, and sterility," she said. "It was a scare tactic rather than an education tactic."

Teens of Anderson's generation were as observant as they are now. They noticed the difference between parental warnings and actual fact. So, many of them stopped believing anti-drug messages in general. "Scare tactics are a big disaster," said Gary De Blasio, executive director of Corner House Counseling Center for Adolescents and Young Adults in Princeton, N.J., "They don't work, especially if you use them on kids who have used drugs."

The 1970s

The scare tactics of the 1960s gave way to the contradictory messages of the late '70s and early '80s. Drugs became glamorous, without becoming better understood. In fact, the 1981 book The Truth About Drugs -- The Body, Mind and You by Gene Chill and John Duff asserted that cocaine wasn't addictive. The ranks of those who had tried illegal drugs grew -- in 1973, 12% of respondents to a Gallup poll said they had tried marijuana. That number had doubled by 1977.

As drug use increased, many Americans began to see it as a problem. In 1978, 66% of Americans said marijuana was a serious problem in the high schools or middle school in their area, and 35% said the same of hard drugs.

While more Americans were willing to admit they tried marijuana, acceptance of it was still slow in coming. In 1978, 21% said they would welcome increased acceptance of marijuana, while 72% said they would not. That percentage who would welcome an increased acceptance decreased to 13% three years later, and was just 11% when last asked in 1991. In 1978, 83% of Americans said it was very important that high school graduates with no plans for college "know the health hazards of smoking, use of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs."

Part two of this series will examine the 1980s and 1990s, and the anti-drug message that works.


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