While the 1960s tend to be viewed as a happening time when recreational drug use was widespread, those years pretty much pale against the period of history that has been colourfully referred to as the Great Binge. Beginning in the 1860s and continuing until the second decade of the twentieth century, the range of mind-altering and chemically addictive substances that could be legally purchased across much of the known world was, well, intoxicating.
Not only was cocaine (which had been invented in the 1860s) perfectly legal and available in a wide range of products, but there were numerous other drugs to compete with it. Heroin, which had been invented in the 1890s as a substitute for morphine (and opium), was freely marketed as a non-addictive pain medication (it was commonly found in cough medicines for children). Bayer also marketed it as a cure for morphine addiction (they pulled the product in 1910 when it was found to be even more addictive than morphine). Cannabis and hashish were widely available as well (it was made illegal in Turkey in 1890 but the trafficking continued).
In addition to the recreational drugs, Absinthe and other beverages with high alcohol content were also being marketed fiercely. Harrods in London even offered morphine and cocaine gift-boxes for a time. Cocaine and heroin were used as performance enhancing drugs by athletes and adventurers alike (cocaine as a stimulant, heroin for controlling pain). Polar explorers included cocaine and heroin as part of their first aid kits. Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, and Sarah Bernhardt advocated the wondrous virtues of cocaine elixirs. Arthur Conan Doyle even had his fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes, taking cocaine to enhance his mental powers. There was little regulation since the products were largely considered to be non-addictive. At least, until the first addiction cases began showing up by the dawn of the twentieth century.
And then the reaction set in...
Absinthe was actually the first substance to be banned. After a Swiss labourer murdered his pregnant wife and two children in 1905 in a drunken range fuelled by absinthe (among other things), anti-absinthe groups mobilized to have it banned across Europe. By 1915, absinthe was illegal in most jurisdictions (including the United States) and the moral panic began to extend to other addictive substances. In the United States, opium was banned in 1905 and cocaine was banned by 1914 (heroin remained legal with a prescription). The Heroin Act banning the manufacture and possession of heroin wasn`t passed until 1924. Individual U.S. states began banning cannabis in 1915 but it wasnt until 1927 that the ban applied across the entire country. Recreational use of cannabis wasn`t banned in the U.K. until 1928.
Heroin remained legal in some countries until after the end of World War Two but most Western countries have since come to regard it as a restricted substance along with cocaine and its various derivatives. It would take years before pharmacological and beverage industries were finally brought under effective government control and potentially addictive substances such as morphine and codeine became heavily regulated.
By 1920, the Great Binge was effectively over (but the legacy remains).