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Can We Stop Addiction Before it Starts? A History of Substance Abuse Prevention

Can we stop addiction before it starts? The question has been ask an infinite amount of times, but rarely do we arrive at a perfect answer. In fact, most of our efforts seem focused on treating the issue rather than preventing it. Substance abuse treatment is utterly and undeniably essential, but focusing on stopping the problem before it starts is the other half of the equation, the solution of which is a world free of substance abuse and addiction. So where do we start? Well, in some ways, we already have. We’ve missed the mark on some prevention measures, but on others we’ve made great strides towards ridding the world of substance abuse. The history of substance abuse prevention is rife with failure and success, but only by looking back can we learn from our missteps and make an impact in the future.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that we realized the real danger and risks drugs posed, especially when abused. Efforts began to help bring regulations into effect to help control the sale of pharmaceutical drugs. Penalties were also enacted that helped punish those who were altering drugs or omitting the harmful side effects of narcotics. As the late 1800s rolled around, opium became a major factor in the control and regulation of drugs, especially in the United States. This was only shortly after the Opium War in China, which resulted from, amongst many things, the influx of opium being trafficked into China.

In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted, which played a major role in the regulation of most foods and drugs in America, and labeled drugs like cocaine, heroin, morphine, and alcohol with informative labels that included dosage amounts and any additional ingredients. Despite the fact that drugs like cannabis, heroin and cocaine were all still available legally, the sales of drugs including opium dropped by over 30% after the Pure Food and Drug Act was put into effect. This act also helped begin construction on what would inevitably become the Food and Drug Administration, which still regulates food and drug safety in America.

A raid of a bootlegger results in a major bust. Barrels of alcohol are dumped into Elk Lake.

Arguably the most famous action ever taken against substance abuse was the prohibition of alcohol. In some part, prohibition was enacted to help combat crime and alcohol smuggling, but in large part the act was championed by those who saw alcohol and alcohol abuse as a pervasive danger to the safety of America’s citizens. The act, while initially successful in regulating alcohol, only helped to increase crime significantly, leading to the rise of some of America’s most famous gangsters, like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Enoch Johnson. Ultimately a failure, prohibition was repealed, but alcohol can still be regulated on a county-to-county basis, resulting in what’s now known as “dry counties”.




The mid 1800s to the early 1900s were not the best years from drug prevention programs. Ultimately, prohibition is widely regarded as a failure, and the problem posed by opium wouldn’t be under control for quite some time. In the years to come, America attempted to control heroin, cocaine, and marijuana – a struggle that still continues today.