IN 1969, WHEN TIME FOCUSED SQUARELY ON
illegal drugs for a cover story, publisher Henry Luce III (son of TIME's founder) described the growing subculture of drugs as "one of the most delicate and complex issues in American life today." The story delved into which mind-bending drugs were popular (mostly pot, speed and LSD), who was using them (anywhere from 12-20 million Americans, mostly young people but growing numbers of adults), where the drugs were coming from (the Midwest and Mexico), and the pros and cons of legalizing pot. The piece ended on a less than decisive note: "Unfortunately, neither side in the legalization dispute can produce conclusive arguments, for although much has been learned about marijuana in recent years much more is still unknown."
Six months later TIME's point of view on heroin was unequivocal, saying that the drug posed a clear and present danger, especially to the young. "Heroin, long considered the affliction of the criminal, the derelict, the debauched, is increasingly attacking America's children." By 1972, TIME was chasing the global war on heroin. Correspondents interviewed growers, smugglers and narcotics agents around the world to explain to readers why the situation was fast becoming a disaster. "The present flow of narcotics to the West is capable of supporting a savage rise in consumptionand with it, savage rises in crime, in crippled lives and in deaths."
By the end of the seventies more than 42 million Americans had tried marijuana, which, along with cocaine, had become a billion-dollar product for farmers, smugglers and dealers from Colombia. In a 1979 cover story staff writer Walter Isaacson, later to become TIME's managing editor, offered a vivid description of how the Colombian Connection worked. He concluded pessimistically, "Current attempts to stamp out Colombia's drugs still seem to be mere stopgaps ... ineffectual against the tide of American demand for, and tolerance of, marijuana and cocaine."
Over the next decade the drug problem in America grew worse. In 1981 a team of TIME correspondents probed the popularity of cocaine across the country, calling it the "all-American drug." A 1983 cover story estimated the number of cocaine users to be as high as 20 million and rising. One of the correspondents who interviewed users for that article called the assignment his most depressing in ten years as a journalist.
Increased demand for illegal substances had sparked a booming drug trade. TIME reported in 1985 that the coca business was not only growing, but "spreading into more and more countries." For corporate America, though, drug abuse was cause for alarm. A cover story in the Business section of the March 17, 1986 issue of TIME explored the efforts companies were making to "battle the enemy within."
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote in September 1986, "Designating drugs a crisis now, the nation tears out its hair in public, calls out the Air Force, the border patrols, the Republicans, the Democrats." In the same issue, associate editor Evan Thomas put America's crusade against drugs in perspective with an examination of "the wild swings of public attitudes toward drug use."
By the mid-nineties marijuana had once again become a popular recreational drug. TIME's Lance Morrow called the marijuana question a "complicated dilemma", asking what boomer parents, once the flower children of the seventies, were telling their children about smoking pot.
As the debate over legalizing pot spilled into the 21st century, TIME revisited "the new politics of pot" in a cover story that raised the issue of marijuana's salutary effects. Don't expect science to clarify the pros and cons any time soon, the article observed, "It turns out that the study of marijuana's health effects is at once more complex and less advanced than you might imagine."
In 2007, drug-related violence spiked near U.S. borders as law enforcers and legislators alike sought new ways to curb the use of illegal drugs, even considering taxation as a remedy. In 2007, TIME explored the science of addiction that fuels drug abuse as well as changing attitudes towards 1960s-era drugs like LSD.