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The History of Drugs in California: A Guide

Drug abuse has a long history in the United States with drugs falling in and out of legal status and addiction rates rising. Being one of the most populous and largest states in America, California has its own colorful history with drug abuse.

Similar to national trends, the largest population of people in California who use drugs are young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

The California Health Care Almanac publishes that according to a 2016 survey, the following were some of the most used drugs statewide:

  • Marijuana
  • Pain medications (misuse and abuse)
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin

In 2016, past-month use of marijuana for adults between the ages of 18 and 25 was 34 percent, while 8 percent misused pain relievers, 7.2 percent abused cocaine, and just under 0.5 percent of Californians abused heroin. These numbers are slightly higher than national averages that show around 20 percent of the same age demographic reporting past-month marijuana use in 2016, just over 4.5 percent reporting misuse of prescription painkillers, around 2 percent reporting cocaine abuse, and just about 0.5 percent reporting heroin abuse, per the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

Methamphetamine abuse is a major public health concern in Southern California. The Drug Enforcement Administration reports that many local field offices, including San Diego, cite meth as the region's biggest drug threat.

Drug abuse in California has ebbed and flowed with changing laws, initiatives, prohibition, criminalization and decriminalization, and addiction rates over the years.

opium in poppy form


In the 1800s, it is believed that Chinese immigrants introduced Californians to opium. Prior to December 1914, drugs like opium and cocaine were not considered illegal in the United States.

In California, there were opium dens where people could go to smoke the product. Tonics and "medicines" were sold over the counter that contained opiates and cocaine for a variety of ailments and remedies.

arrested man with handcuffs on

The War on Drugs in California

Mass marketing depicted cocaine and heroin creating addicts out of African American and Chinese men who would then terrorize white women. This fed mass hysteria that led in part to the passing of the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act at the end of 1914. The Harrison Act was meant to tax products containing opiates and cocaine, but it essentially just banned all nonmedical use of these products and set forth harsh punishments for narcotic-related offenses.

Men of color were disproportionately targeted by harsher penalties and laws involving these drugs.

The Pacific Standard explains that the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required product labeling, served to inform consumers and dropped the sale of opiate products by a third. The Harrison Act was more punitive and opened the door to a thriving black market that may have actually increased the rate of drug abuse and the number of people battling addiction. It also created a boon in the prison population, especially for black men, and a federal system that punishes severely for drug offenses.

The Harrison Act left a loophole that California doctors took advantage of, the Los Angeles Times reports, allowing cocaine or heroin to be prescribed to people battling addiction. Narcotics police figured this out and went to work to close it, arresting around 17,000 doctors throughout the United States throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In California, the Los Angeles mayor worked to keep the loophole open, but the head of the Narcotics Bureau in California at the time, Chris Hansen, was bribed by a local drug lord Woo Sing to shut down the legal drug trade in the area and allow the illegal one more access.

This series of events essentially began the War on Drugs. It opened the door for drug cartels and a massive underground drug trade and drug market in California and beyond.

The war against drugs in the United States and California raged on over the years, President Nixon classified marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance in 1971, making it illegal at the federal level.

In 1981, Nancy Reagan initiated the Just Say No campaign while her husband, President Ronald Reagan, increased penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. The number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997, the Drug Policy Alliance publishes.

In the late 1980s, the zero-tolerance drug policy was expanded. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates founded the DARE program, which gained national attention.

Prohibition efforts attempting to minimize drug use in California and the rest of the country may have had the exact opposite impact. They created a vacuum that was filled by drug cartels pumping in the now illegal drugs to fulfill the needs of those struggling with addiction and drug use.

cartel cocaine and guns

Mexican Cartels and the California Drug Trade

As a hole opened up in the drug trade in California, drug cartels rushed to fill it. California's proximity to Mexico and the expanse of the southwest border (SWB) created access to the United States from Mexico. Drugs have been flowing up across the border for decades.

By the 1980s, the SWB was considered the main route of transportation for smuggling cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the United States. Mexican drug traffickers became some of the most powerful and influential drug distributors, introducing methamphetamine in the 1990s.

One of the most infamous Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa Federation, was headed up by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. In 2003, he was dubbed the drug trafficker with the most power in the entire world by the U.S. Treasury Department. Between 1990 and 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have imported around 200 tons of cocaine and massive amounts of heroin and other drugs into the United States.

Another Mexican drug cartel, the Milenio Cartel, notoriously run by the Valencia family (most notably Jose Valencia) produced large amounts of marijuana and opium poppy plants in Mexico that were harvested and trafficked across the border into California for distribution.

The Milenio Cartel also trafficked cocaine. The leader Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, operating as an offshoot of the Sinaloa Cartel, is credited with the introduction of methamphetamine (meth) and other synthetic drugs into the drug trafficking mix. Due to his reputation for trafficking crystal meth, Nacho was often referred to as the "King of Crystal" or the "Ice King."

The DEA reports that almost all the meth in the United States today comes from Mexico (90 percent). The main entry point into America is through the SWB, particularly in the San Diego Corridor.

crystal meth in a bag

Attempts to Curb Meth Production and Abuse in California

Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant drug made from precursor chemicals, such as those found in over-the-counter (OTC) cold medications like Sudafed (pseudoephedrine).

In 1970s, amphetamines were largely prescription-only medications. Recognition of their potential addictiveness and hazards of use created more regulation on legal production and distribution of these products, which in turn led to an upswing in illegal production. This originated with Northern California motorcycle gangs.

Meth can be produced in a laboratory. It does not require plant growth or cultivation. As desire for the powerful stimulant drug grew, clandestine laboratories making meth began to spring up all over California, particularly in rural areas.

By the 1980s, the Mexican drug cartels had gotten involved in meth distribution, spreading production down to Southern California and increasing these large-scale meth production operations.

The 1990s brought a Mexican cartel stronghold into the city of Los Angeles as well as the neighboring counties of Riverside and San Bernardino. This led to the initiation of the Inland Empire "super labs" that were able to produce meth in large quantities.

In an attempt to curb production and illegal distribution of meth, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act (CMEA)of 2005 was passed, which placed limits and controls on the precursor products being used to make meth, the OTC cold medications. This made it harder to buy these products in bulk for meth production. Instead of stopping meth production and distribution in California, however, this law only served to move most of the meth labs over into Mexico where the cartels are getting the precursor chemicals imported from China.

Meth is still considered a massive drug threat in California, particularly in the southern part of the state. The drug is making its way across the border from Mexico most often.

Local California municipalities are taking measures to combat meth use and abuse in their areas, including the San Diego County Meth Strike Force that began in 1996 and still works today as a multidisciplinary agency.

Summer of Love and LSD in California

The 1950s and 1960s brought forth a new era, proclaiming "free love," which was decidedly against war and for drug experimentation.

In 1962, Harvard professor Timothy Leary began experimenting with the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. By the summer of 1967, the hippie movement had accepted the drug wholeheartedly.

In summer 1967, dubbed the "Summer of Love," tens of thousands of American young adults and teenagers descended on San Francisco and to the alternative communal living experiences of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, The Weekpublishes. The movement may have began in direct protest to a California law banning LSD in late 1966. A gathering of "flower children" in Golden Gate Park invited the rest of the country to participate in the hippie movement that summer.

Prohibition of LSD may have in effect actually increased its use and distribution in California that summer. The Summer of Love mostly ended as summer drew to a close. Most of the people who had converged in San Francisco returned home or back to college as the city could not support their alternative lifestyle. Many were penniless and continuously getting into altercations with law enforcement.

opioid crisis

California Opioid Crisis and Governmental Response

In the mid-1990s, Purdue Pharma rolled out and heavily marketed OxyContin (oxycodone), heralding it as a nonaddictive prescription opioid pain medication. Doctors were enticed to prescribe these medications. Before anyone knew what had really happened, millions of Americans struggled with opioid addiction involving prescription painkillers.

In 2010, Purdue Pharma reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to crush and abuse by snorting, injecting, or smoking. Reports indicate that this, coupled with tighter regulation on prescription painkillers, may have served to increase the demand for other opioid drugs that were easier to use and obtain, such as heroin, the LA Times publishes.

The opioid addiction and overdose epidemic in the United States is considered a public health crisis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that more than 2,000 California residents died from an opioid-involved overdose in 2016. This is below the national average when based on population, however.

California's opioid overdose fatality rate for 2016 was 4.9 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people nationally. The opioid crisis may have been a bit slower to hit California than the rest of the country, but indicators are rising. Opioid drugs are still considered a major issue in the Golden State.

California was one of the first states to come up with a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) in 1997. This is a database where prescribers can check in to ensure that patients receiving opioid drugs are not "doctor shopping" and seeking additional prescriptions or that they are not taking more than one potentially dangerous medication at a time. The goal of a PDMP is to be able to stop prescription drug abuse from happening by noticing potentially harmful patterns of use that may indicate diversion, misuse, or addiction.

In October 2018, Senate Bill (SB) 482 went into effect, which requires prescribers to record the dispensing of controlled substances in California's PDMP, CURES 2.0 (Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System).

Prescription opioids are most commonly involved in opioid overdoses that occur in California. In 2017, there were over 4,000 non-fatal opioid-overdoses treated in emergency departments (EDs) in the state of California.

Another alarming trend involving illegal opioid drug trafficking is the introduction of fentanyl into the drug supply. Fentanyl is an extremely potent synthetic opioid that drug manufacturers and dealers are using to cut heroin, cocaine, and meth to make batches go further, often resulting in unintended fatal overdose.

The Sacramento Bee warns that there were more than 5,000 drug overdoses in California in 2017 and 20 percent likely involved fentanyl.

The drug overdose fatality rate spiked over 5 percent in just one year in California. The powerful opioids fentanyl and heroin are likely helping to drive these numbers up.

marijuana plants

California Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana is still considered an illegal drug on the federal level, but in California, both medicinal use and recreational adult use are considered legal now, thanks to Proposition 64. This law made it legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and for private individuals to grow up to three plants out of view of the public.

As of January 2018, California adults aged 21 and up can purchase marijuana through licensed recreational pot shops. Back in 1913, California was the first state to ban marijuana as it was added to the prohibition of non-prescription opium, morphine, and cocaine under the Poison and Pharmacy Act of 1913.

There have been many California laws, initiatives, and measures involving marijuana over the years.

  • 1972: California attempted to decriminalize possession and sale of marijuana through Proposition 19, which failed.
  • 1973: Berkeley Marijuana Initiative I was passed by voters, which required approval from the city council in order for marijuana-related arrests to be made by police officers.
  • 1976: Moscone Act of 1976 moved possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a felony offense to a misdemeanor.
  • 1979: Berkeley Marijuana Initiative II made sale, transportation, possession, and growing of marijuana the lowest-ranking priority for area police.
  • 1992: The Board of Supervisors in California made San Francisco the first American city to legalize medicinal marijuana use and also relegated marijuana-related law enforcement to the lowest priority in the city.
  • 1996: California became the first state to legalize marijuana sale and use for medical purposes under Proposition 215.
  • 1999: A three-year program for medical research into marijuana as medicine was launched. Funding helped to create the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego.
  • 2005: The city of Oakland makes marijuana possession and use a low priority for law enforcement and passes legislation pertaining to adult use of cannabis regulation and taxation.
  • 2010: SB 1449 was passed, making possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction and misdemeanor offense.
  • 2010: Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana use in the Golden State, is defeated.
  • 2011: U.S. attorneys prosecute landlords and owners of property that were growing marijuana on site or renting the buildings to allow this practice.
  • 2012: Mendocino County ceases the permit program that had been allowing medicinal marijuana growth.
  • 2015: New medicinal marijuana regulations, licensing standards, fees, and rules are established.
  • 2016: Proposition 64 is passed, legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana.
  • 2018: Proposition 64 goes into action, legalizing recreational marijuana use in California. The first recreational marijuana stores open on January 1, 2018.

Marijuana has a long history in the state of California, as it has been trafficked up from Mexico by the drug cartels for decades. The stricter control of the Mexico-United States border that occurred as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 caused the cartels to move their production into California directly.

According to Newsweek, Mexican drug cartels have been growing marijuana in the state of California for a while. These illegal weed farms are common in rural Northern California.

California is home to the vast majority of illegal plantations, hosting about 90 percent of the domestic marijuana farms. Even with marijuana legalization in the state, the drug cartels do not appear to be losing their foothold on the cash crop anytime soon.

Mexican drug cartels are still in the marijuana business, but when it comes to smuggling drugs up across the border, they are often turning to less bulky products, such as meth, heroin, and fentanyl.

The Future of Drug Use in California

Despite law enforcement efforts, drug abuse continues to be a problem in California. Due to its proximity to Mexico, drug smuggling will likely always be an issue for the state.

Prevention and treatment efforts will continue to play a vital role in reducing drug abuse rates in California.


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One Hundred Years Ago, Prohibition Began in Earnest- And We're Still Paying for it. (January 2015). Pacific Standard.

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