Surveying Drug Prevention

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal. In it, he surveys how schools, parents, and Congress responded to increased drug use in the 20th century through anti-drug abuse education initiatives. 

In the opening scene of the 1936 cult classic Reefer Madness, Dr. Alfred Carrol speaks to a parents’ group about preventing the “marijuana menace” that threatened their children. Haranguing the terrified mothers and fathers during the meeting, Carrol explains that this “frightful assassin of youth” could be stamped out with “compulsory education on the subject of narcotics in general, but marijuana in particular.” Carrol argued that “enlightenment” was the path to eliminating this “scourge.” However, the focus on educating parents to “Tell your Children,” the title of Carrol’s talk and one of Reefer Madness’s other titles, proved more popular than mandated public school education.  In fact, it would be decades before Americans felt comfortable teaching young people about narcotics in the classroom. This revealing debate about drug prevention and the tactics to stop drug abuse became a pivotal concern in communities across America, especially after drug use increased after WWII.  This brief survey of congressional hearings and debates about anti-drug abuse education in the 1950s and 1960s shows that this topic became a lightning rod for larger arguments about the role of the state in local communities and the classroom, but also indicates the controversies and debates that can be fleshed out as I target sources and archives for this project on the history of public drug education programs in post-WWII America. [1]

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