10 Hard Drugs That Used to Be Legal

heroin more

Most of us are familiar with the dangers of illegal drugs. Along with the risk of addiction, severe health problems and other unwanted side effects, there is also the danger that a drug user will face punishment if caught. Depending on the drug and area, this punishment can involve anything from a warning to a lengthy jail sentence. But things weren’t always that way. Many drugs that are severely restricted today were once commonplace and completely legal. In fact, not only were these drugs available, they were actually recommended and promoted by healthcare professionals, often with unfortunate results. Here are ten of them:

10. Opium


Its usage is much older, but this form of dried juice from the opium poppy became popular in the United States during the 19th Century. Back then, it was freely prescribed by doctors and even available at grocery stores. Chinese laborers had brought the practice of opium smoking to the West during the mid-nineteenth century, and laudanum, a solution of opium and alcohol, was also popular. Opium was often given to women to treat menstrual cramps and to infants to help with teething pain. Around the turn of the 20th Century, most opium addicts were older women.

San Francisco first banned opium dens in 1875, and California restricted opium possession in 1907.  The 1914 Harrison Narcotics Tax Act effectively outlawed the drug throughout America. Today, drugs derived from the opium poppy, such as morphine and codeine, are legal but heavily restricted.

9. Marijuana


Usage of the cannabis plant, from which the psychoactive drug marijuana is derived, was unrestricted in America until the early twentieth century. In fact, in 1619 a Virginia law required farmers to grow native hemp on their plantations in order to produce textiles! Ironically, given its later reputation, the earliest state to ban the plant was California in 1913. Federal laws passed in 1937 restricted marijuana usage to the medicinal, and later laws in the 1950s introduced mandatory sentencing for possession, with the justification that marijuana was a ‘gateway drug’ into heavier narcotics.

Medical marijuana is now legal in over a dozen states, although still prohibited by federal law. The current administration has indicated that federal laws involving medical marijuana will not be enforced in these states. (

8. Methamphetamine


Nowadays a popular target for public service announcements, methamphetamine was first created by a Japanese chemist in 1893. In 1944, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the US to treat a selection of medical conditions including narcolepsy, alcoholism, mild depression, and even seasonal allergies. By the 1950s, this legal medication had become popular under the name of Methedrine, but abuse had also become common. Passed in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act severely restricted its usage, although meth is still available under the name of Desoxyn for very limited uses.

Bad news for the congested: since the 1980s, there have also been strict crackdowns on several legal cold-and-flu drugs that can be used to produce methamphetamine, like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These previously over-the-counter medications now often require ID to purchase.

7. Peyote


Mescaline, a hallucinogenic chemical derived from the peyote cactus, has been used by Native American religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Peyote use was outlawed in several US states in the 1920s and 30s, but remained legal in most of the US throughout the 1960s and was often shipped interstate to interested parties.

Mescaline was restricted by Congress under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Currently, members of the federally-recognized Native American Church are exempt from criminal penalties for peyote use, as long as further state restrictions do not apply.

6. Cocaine


Many famous people of the early 20th century, including Sigmund Freud and the Pope, were cocaine users. Although cocaine is derived from the coca plant, which has been in use for at least 3000 years, its modern incarnation only appeared around the 1860s. Available in many forms, including dissolved into wine, it was prescribed by doctors to treat depression and morphine addiction.

In America, it was popular as a treatment for coughs and pain, and was famously included in early versions of Coca-Cola. Although technically restricted by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, prosecution for cocaine usage was rare, and only became common after it was listed a controlled substance in 1970.

5. LSD


The psychedelic effects of LSD, or ‘acid’, were discovered by accident in 1943, after the Swiss scientist who invented the chemical accidentally absorbed some through his skin. During the 1950s the US Army, along with the CIA, researched the uses of LSD as a potential ‘truth drug’ for use in brainwashing. Their experiments involved giving LSD to everyone from CIA agents to prostitutes, and recording the results. Soon, psychiatrists also became interested in its potential therapeutic benefits. Although LSD was still being imported from Switzerland at this time, the drug’s formula could be purchased for a small sum from the US patent office, after which a user could synthesize LSD himself.

In 1966, after widespread abuse and ill-effects caused in part by people making the drug incorrectly, LSD was outlawed in California. In 1970, it was listed by Congress as a Schedule I substance, meaning it has no recognized medicinal or therapeutic uses.

4. GHB


Famous these days as a ‘date rape’ drug, GHB is a naturally-occurring neurochemical that produces a depressant, pain-relieving effect. A lab-made version was synthesized in the 1960s and was used widely in Europe as an anesthetic, particularly in childbirth. In the 1980s, it became popular among body builders as a legal sleep aid, and eventually as a legal recreational drug. After GHB became associated with abuse and accidental deaths, the FDA cracked down on its sale in 1990. It was not listed federally as a controlled substance (illegal to possess as well as to sell) until 2000 when, like LSD, it became a Schedule 1 drug. However, GHB has recently been approved as a heavily-controlled treatment for narcolepsy.

3. Magic Mushrooms

magic mushrooms

Also known as shrooms, magic mushrooms are fungi native to Asia and the Americas that contain psilocybin, a compound that produces an LSD-like effect in users. Magic mushrooms have been in use for millennia, but as recently as the early 20th century Western academics were still arguing whether or not they existed. Use among Westerners was popularized in the 1950s after an article on the subject appeared in Life Magazine. In the 1960s, psychologist Timothy Leary and many others promoted these mushrooms for psychological use.

Possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms was outlawed in 1968. However, since the mushroom spores do not contain psilocybin, spores are still legal in most states.

2. Ecstasy


MDMA, or ecstasy, was legal in the United States as recently as 1984. Synthesized and patented in 1912 by a chemist working for pharmaceutical company Merck, it was largely forgotten until the mid 1970s, when Berkeley professor Alexander Shulgin popularized it for use in psychotherapy. Shulgin claimed that it could help psychiatric patients achieve greater introspection and more openness with their therapists. Ecstasy also became popular in non-therapeutic settings, particularly nightclubs, and in 1985 was put under an ‘emergency ban’ and became a Schedule I controlled drug.

1. Heroin


First synthesized in 1874, heroin was first created as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. The word ‘heroin’ is actually a brand name created by the pharmaceutical company that invented it, Bayer. In the early 20th century, it was also marketed in the US as a treatment for coughs and as a kind of old-fashioned methadone program for morphine users.

Unfortunately, the drug turned out to be more addictive than morphine. Heroin used to be legal, until it became apparent that it is more addictive than morphine, and can cause opiate withdrawal symptoms when its use is abruptly stopped. After hundreds of thousands of Americans saw their sore throats relieved only to be replaced with crippling addiction and long-term stays at a drug rehab program; heroin usage was severely restricted in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, and outlawed altogether in 1924.


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