AMERICA's drug crisis, it appears, is nothing new. The nation's strong appetite for alcohol, opium, cocaine, heroin, and other mind-altering substances goes back to the 19th century - and earlier.
James Hawdon, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, points out that early European settlers often brought more alcohol than water for the transatlantic crossing to the American Colonies.
David F. Musto, a medical doctor, notes in his book, ``The American Disease,'' that many physicians put opium in their prescriptions in the 18th century. It eased patients' anxieties, Dr. Musto writes, but it also helped create a thriving trade in opium.
The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse observed in a study several years ago that the growing use of cocaine in the United States dates back as far as the Civil War.
Experts say the US goes through periodic cycles of heavy drug use. They peak with a wave a fear, and then begin to subside.
That happened early this century, when the use of morphine, cocaine, heroin, and laudanum (opium in alcohol) became widespread. So alarmed was the nation that Congress adopted the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 - the first nationwide effort to control narcotics.
Drugs like cocaine and morphine were in such widespread use in the 1890s that by today's standards conditions were unthinkable.
With few regulations in effect, cocaine was peddled door to door. Patent medicines containing morphine, cocaine, and opium could be purchased off the shelf in many stores.
Soda pop, including Coca-Cola, often contained cocaine to provide an extra jolt. (Coca-Cola switched to caffeine in 1903). Syrups sold to soothe babies sometimes contained opiates. Opium smoking was common.
Even taverns sold drugs. Often a bartender would add a pinch of cocaine to a glass of whiskey to give it extra punch. Dr. Musto's book notes that William Hammond, the former surgeon general of the Army, took a wineglass containing a cocaine solution with each meal as a pick-me-up. One drug company even sold coca-leaf cigarettes.
Ironically, the 19th-century scientific community saw little wrong with all this. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst, even supported use of cocaine as an addiction cure.
Midst this drug frenzy, men like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., dean of the Harvard Medical School, were voices crying in the wilderness. Before the Civil War, Holmes was warning about overuse of drugs. He was particularly concerned about America's West, where even today some of the greatest levels of drug use are found. He said:
``The constant prescription of opiates by certain physicians ... has rendered the habitual use of that drug in that region very prevalent. ... A frightful epidemic demoralization betrays itself in the frequency with which the haggard features and drooping shoulders of the opium drunkards are met with in the street.''
With that background, the current narcotics epidemic does not surprise drug specialists. But today's heavy use of drugs does have more recent causes.
Although the physical dangers of certain drugs are now widely recognized, millions of Americans have ignored the warnings and become heavy drug users during the past two decades.
Lloyd Johnston, program director at the Institute for Social Research of the University of Michigan, is writing a paper on how America stumbled into its current crisis.
``It is a combination of a number of factors,'' Dr. Johnston explains. But one thing appears certain: ``The Vietnam war was a great catalyst.''
Marijuana and LSD took on a symbolic value for the youth counterculture as young Americans rebelled against the war and against the restraints of society and family.
``The counterculture movement saw the predominant laws as not legitimate. That freed young people of the constraints to honor the laws and mores of the established generation. So within that age group it became legitimate to do what was otherwise illegitimate,'' Johnston says.
Once millions of young people had broken with society by using marijuana, the barriers were down. Other drugs, such as cocaine, ``drafted in behind marijuana.'' Once young people had tried ``pot,'' it was only a small step to more serious drugs.
Other things also fostered the drug movement. Breakdown of the family and loss of community, for example, removed former restraints.
Prosperity also was a factor. ``Kids have more freedom and more money here than other societies,'' Johnston notes.
Johnston also blames other aspects of American society. We have become a nation that ``expects instant gratification, with low effort, and drugs are the quintessential extension of that,'' he says.
Mr. Hawdon at the University of Virginia agrees. ``As a nation, we glorify certain drugs, he says. ``[TV advertising tells us that] `weekends are made for Michelob.' In fact, `nights are made for Michelob.' You don't even have to wait for the weekend any more. `Be a coffee achiever.' All these marketing campaigns glorify drugs.''
In US society, people have come to expect that ``if you are sick, we can cure you. If you have a headache, we have a pill. If you are too fat, we have a pill. If you are too skinny, we have a pill,'' Hawdon notes.
``No matter what your mood is, we are taught that some substance can cure this, whether a physical or a mental ailment.''
The National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, in its earlier study, found that ``15 percent of [the US] adult population reported that they `take a pill to calm down or cheer up' when they feel `out of sorts ... not really sick, but nervous, or depressed or under stress.'''
An estimated 18 percent of the population uses alcohol in a similar way.
Popular culture adds to the problem. The commission noted:
``The content of much of the contemporary cultural output - movies, television programs, and novels - tends to give a distorted and misleading view of the real world for the young who have to cope with the problems of ordinary living.
``Drug-taking, both legal and illegal, is a commonplace activity among the characters one encounters in our literature, on stage, and on television.''
The commission said that a crucial turning point in popular thinking came with the invention of ``miracle drugs'' like sulfa and penicillin. It concluded:
``Many people in our society have learned to expect, and even to demand, immediate pharmacological relief from discomfort, emotional or physical. ... More and more people are using drugs as if they were the only possible solution to the inevitable vicissitudes of life....
``Many persons have come to regard very real and fundamental emotions and feelings as abnormal, avoidable, socially and personally unacceptable, and, worst of all, unnecessary.''
Such thinking worsens the current drug crisis, experts say.
Second of two articles. The first ran yesterday.