The history of drug abuse in the 1930s

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The history of drug abuse in the 1930s
In the early 20th century Governments around the world began introducing laws to limit the abuse of drugs (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Drugs have been used by people around the world to alter their states and treat illnesses for thousands of years in the form of both natural and synthetic substances. In the UK the Government profited from the opium trade throughout the 19th century and did not take seriously the problem of drug addiction until after World War I and the arrival of addiction research in the 1930s.

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Attitudes towards abuse

In the 21st century the majority of people understand addiction to be a problem affecting both the physical and mental health of the addict. However, in the early years of the 20th century drug abuse was thought to be a problem suffered by those of weak moral character who lacked the ability to stop taking drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. In the 1930s attitudes to drug abuse began to change with the first scientific studies beginning to explain why people became addicted to certain drugs and how treatments could help addicts.


Throughout the 19th century the UK felt the effects of the government backed opium trade bringing large quantities of the drug into the country. By the beginning of the 20th century the growing number of addicts in Britain and China where opium was being grown and traded through saw the drug become a large social problem, according to Bayelsa State Union. In the early part of the 20th century opium was made illegal in the US and UK driving addicts to find illegally imported opium and heroin because of the addictive nature of the drug. By the beginning of World War II illegal opium supplies were brought into the UK from Asian countries like India and Persia.


Despite being a large scale problem in the use of illegal drugs in the majority of countries around the world cocaine did not become a widespread problem until the 1930s in the UK and US. Snorted, smoked or injected the practice of taking cocaine for energy dates back to periods of ancient history, Bayelsa State Union reports. Following the discovery of amphetamines in the late part of the 19th century cocaine became less popular, but was found in many medications and health supplements until the 1930s. During the 1930s, jazz musicians popularised the use of cocaine to maintain their hedonistic lifestyle and hectic performance schedules. Cocaine had been removed from British streets during World War I and did not resurface until the 1930s because of fears German scientists had poisoned supplied heading into the UK.


The use of synthetically produced amphetamines was not seen as a problem until after World War II, but the history of abuse for this drug can be traced to the 1930s, the University of Maryland reports. Benzadrine, a form of amphetamine was first released as a nasal decongestant sparking the first wave of abuse of the drug in the general public during the 1930s. Noted for providing increased focus and energy in users Benzadrine was used by military groups from the outset of World War II in 1939 and increased the number of addicts returning to civilian life after the War.

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