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Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

by David T. Courtwright (Author)



Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal
Historian Courtwright (Violent Land) ranges widely across more than four
centuries and the world to chart the "psychoactive revolution" that made ever
more potent drugs available to all classes of people and redefined the meaning
and means of consciousness, and even social conscience. As pleasure came to
matter more, drugs of all kinds found ready takers. Courtwright gathers up
historical, scientific, literary, artistic, and public policy references on
psychoactive substances, legal and illegal, to show how drug usage was as much
an outgrowth of market forces as cultural habits. Drugs were commerce and
currency and moved from geographically limited areas of cultivation to worldwide
consumption, with ever more efficient means of production and supply driving
down prices and thereby opening markets to the poorest. Efforts by governments
over the past century to outlaw particular drugs, while regulating others, have
proved uneven and erratic. Always intelligent and informed, witty and wise,
Courtwright's book is the best way to get a fix on why getting drugs out of our
systems would require more than abstinence; it would take another revolution in
handling social and personal pain. An essential acquisition.DRandall M. Miller,
Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia

From the New England Journal of Medicine, August 9, 2001
Set on a world stage, this book is about the ``psychoactive revolution'' of the
past 500 years. Courtwright, well known for his work concerning the history of
drug addiction and, more generally, social history, observes that in wealthy
societies in the 20th century a cornucopia of drugs, illicit and licit, became
available and popular. How did this situation arise, he asks, and how have
societies and governments coped with it, and especially, why have some drugs
posed more of a problem than others? The main story relates to the expansion of
European oceangoing commerce in early modern times and the resulting discoveries
of new commercial opportunities. In the drug trade, the three big items
eventually became alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, to the exclusion of other
possibilities derived from the plant world. These three drugs remain abundant
and profitable commodities, eliciting various responses in different societies.
Thus, this book is not about medicine itself or about the changing practices of
physicians over the centuries. Although the author mentions those practices from
time to time, he is concerned with the broader story of the sweeping changes in
the markets, and thereby in the uses, of a range of substances. And he explains
how governments have responded differently in different ages to the growing
commodification and popularity of psychoactive substances. Alcohol and caffeine
were, of course, Old World products whose spread became enormously wider as a
result of European expansion and European technology. Tobacco was a New World
plant that conquered the Old World after Europeans discovered its psychoactive
(and addictive) properties. At about the same time, advances in distilling
techniques and the spread of information about them through the printed word
created opportunities for making and selling alcohol. After their conquest of
South America, some Europeans began cultivating coffee on that continent, while
elsewhere other Europeans were expanding the tea trade. Alcohol, tobacco, and
caffeine soon became important trade commodities, the taxation of which was a
mainstay of government finances.

Courtwright does not confine his story to the big three in the drug world. He
also writes about cannabis, opium, coca and cocaine, and synthetic products.
None of these substances or their derivatives became commodified in quite the
same way as did the big three, although there were important regional
exceptions, such as the infamous opium dens of the Chinese. Part of the story of
the lesser-used drugs is the relative absence of their commercialization. For
example, until well into the 20th century, smoking marijuana was a practice of
particular -- and relatively small -- populations in certain regions. Nor is
Courtwright's analysis entirely commercial. To the Christian Europeans, the
Amerindians' use of plant hallucinogens such as peyote was reprehensible.
One essential difference with respect to alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine was the
skill of entrepreneurs and their resulting profits and power in promoting these
products. Courtwright's approach is to paint a large picture, while occasionally
delving in some depth into particulars. He writes about James Duke and the
growth of the cigarette trade after the late 19th century. The industry that
Duke's ingenuity and acumen fostered became very powerful, and it remains so
today, able to fight off efforts to restrict it severely or even to eradicate
it, however steep is the mountain of evidence about the ill effects of tobacco use.

Herein lies the story of a sea change in social approaches to drug use and the
drug trades. With the advance of industrialized societies, concern mounted about
the effects of psychoactive substances. Altered states of consciousness do not
mix well with the needs of a technologically complex civilization. Europeans
sometimes tolerated altered states of consciousness among peasants and workers
as a means of easing the pain of their often miserable lives, especially in
early modern times. Views changed with advancing industrialization in the 19th
century, however. Even so, efforts to control the use of tobacco and alcohol
detract from their potential as objects of taxation (and contradict the
realities of their use). The enormous power of the tobacco and alcohol
industries has overcome efforts to ban or restrict their products. When the
United States, for instance, prohibited the liquor trades in 1920, wealthy
Americans eventually engineered the law's repeal by arguing that it would
promote an economic revival (repeal occurred in 1933, the nadir of the Great
Depression) and pointing out the benefits of having alcohol taxes.
In the case of other drugs that were declared illicit during the industrial age
in some places, there are ongoing efforts to eradicate their use. Courtwright is
known for his use of historical knowledge to argue against the legalization of
``drugs,'' and he does so again in a concluding chapter dealing with dangerous
psychoactive substances in the 21st century.

Courtwright writes with felicity, gracefully constructing his narrative in a
clearly organized fashion, eschewing jargon and technical language. This is an
engaging book that deserves a wide audience among general readers.


Product Details

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (October 30, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0674010035

 

 

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