David T. Courtwright examines drug policy not just from the United States’ current perspective but from a wide-ranging historical viewpoint that takes a global view of the subject. Considering worldwide sociopolitical developments that have shaped different countries’ approach to licit and illicit drug use (from official sanction to criminal penalties), Courtwright attempts to offer an in-depth, rather than simplistic answer to the questions, “Why are coffee, tobacco, and marijuana available the world over, but not peyote or qat? Why are alcohol and tobacco legal, but not heroin or cocaine?”
In Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World Courtwright traces legal, social, political, and medical histories of the drugs he discusses, touching upon such diverse topics as changing attitudes toward drug use in China and the former Soviet Union, the popularity of opium-laced “patent medicines” in the United States and their ill effects, and the rise of temperance societies in response to a perceived moral and social threat. Courtwright concludes his study by examining contemporary United States drug law and suggesting alternatives to current policy regarding licit drugs and illicit drugs, while acknowledging that any changes are captive to much larger and often irrational political forces.
Courtwright manages a nearly impossible feat: he brings clarity, objectivity, sound scholarship, and readability to a notoriously difficult subject. His impressive research lends credibility to his arguments, yet this is no forbidding scholarly tome. General readers should find themselves both comfortable and engrossed. Readers on any point of the political spectrum (“hawks,” “doves,” and “owls,” as he calls them) will appreciate the factual and even-handed treatment of potentially explosive subject matter. This is an indispensable book for anyone who feels current U.S. drug policy could stand improvement, providing a solid historical background for supporting such a conclusion.