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

by David T. Courtwright Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. 277 pages. 29 illustrations. $24.95 hardcover.

   In this book David Courtwright, Professor of History at the University of North Florida, tells "the story of psychoactive commerce." It is Courtwright's theme that psychoactive drugs - both legal and illegal - are commodities, like bread or cloth. They are manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed and used much like any other commodity. They go in and out of public favor and new and improved products are constantly being introduced. Throughout human history, governments had generally treated drugs like any other commodities. Prior to the Twentieth Century opium, coca, and cannabis were all legally available in the form of patent medicines that were widely and casualty used in both the United States and Britain.

   Courtwright divides his book into three sections, with some overlap in content between sections. The first (titled "The Confluence of Psychoactive Resources") describes the way drugs, having originally been geographically confined, entered the stream of global commerce. He compares the history of drugs to the history of infectious diseases in that travel and transport were the variables that influenced the spread of both. Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine (the "big three") and opium, cannabis, and coca ("the little three") all owed their success, he claims, to the expansion of oceangoing commerce.

   In the second section ("Drugs and Commerce") Courtwright takes up the issue of drugs as medical and recreational products. Section three ("Drugs and Power") discusses pressures and developments that influenced governments to discard the centuries old policy of a taxed, legal drug commerce in favor of restriction and, in some cases, even prohibition. Not surprisingly, he concludes that this happened "because it served the interests of the wealthy and powerful," but he seems to largely overlook the important role that racism played in motivating prohibition.

   Despite the evident failure of drug prohibition in the U.S. and elsewhere, Courtwright endorses the continuation of supply-side strategies. He insists that drugs will be abused wherever they are available, and that efforts must therefore focus on reducing supply. "The task now," he writes, "is to adjust the system." But his optimism about making prohibition work seems perfunctory. Throughout this book, Courtwright paints a gloomy view of the drug problem that is likely to convince the reader that no adjustments to the system will cut off the supply of drugs. There is much to be gained from reading this book whether you accept the author's policy conclusions or not.