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

19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674010031
ISBN-10: 0674010035
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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
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

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.

K. Austin Kerr, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2001 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 30, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674010035
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674010031
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #347,754 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Courtwright is known for his books on drug use and drug policy in American and world history (Dark Paradise, Addicts Who Survived, and Forces of Habit) and for his books on the special problems of frontier environments (Violent Land and Sky as Frontier). His most recent book, No Right Turn, chronicles the tumultuous politics and surprising outcome of the culture war that engulfed America in the four decades after Nixon's 1968 election.

Courtwright lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and teaches history at the University of North Florida, where he is Presidential Professor. He was educated at the University of Kansas and at Rice University.

Selected articles by David Courtwright are available at Digital Commons,

Photo credits: Shelby Miller (color) and David Wilson (black and white)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I read an early draft of this book, then recently finished the completed product. In both cases, the book was always easy to read, enlightening, and meticulously researched. Courtwright is a well known social historian who has specialized in drug abuse and violence in modern society.
Forces of Habit more of a general history than his early works, which primarily dealt with narrow topics. In the book, Courtwright traces the spread of drug use (and abuse) from isolated, local customs to the largescale manufacture and distribution seen today. He explores the history of all psychoactive substances, both legal and illegal. Tobbaco, alcohol, and caffenine are explored in one chapter, where cocaine, marijuana, and opiates are dealt with in the next. Other, rare drugs are also discussed.
Courtwright presents a balanced view of the use of these substances, exploring the economic, political, and cultural impact of drug use. This book is always a pleasure to read, as Courtwright has the ability to convey information easily, without "dumbing it down" for the reader. This book is highly recommended.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By gwc on August 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book is great fun, not least because of the author's extraordinary skill in the efficient delivery of interesting facts. The opening chapters, which detail the origins of the world's major drugs, are among the most informative I've read.
The second half of the book, while still engrossing, is a less comprehensive historic analysis of drug use and prohibition. Courtwright concentrates on economics at the expense of culture, emphasizing production and commerce rather than demand and moral opposition. Given the enormous social influences in the modern world, such as the American cultural war against 60's drug use and the pervasive use of alcohol and tobacco as social tools, the emphasis on money and power over cultural forces in the past strikes me as an incomplete analysis. It leads the author to unconvincingly argue that American prohibition and its repeal were primarily the results of economic interests (a "contradiction of capitalism"). Oddly, the same events in the Soviet Union are attributed to "popular resistance", without any comparative discussion of the two nations. Finally, the value of pleasure and the concept of individual rights are generally neglected.
In the end, my main problem with is that Courtwright doesn't give culture the excellent and amusing treatment he gives commerce. I can think of worse things to say about a book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Damon Jasperson on June 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I was attracted to this book originally because I had read one of Courtwright's other books, "Violent Land," and was very much impressed. Courtwright seems to be building a career on the study of the historical dimensions of deviance--which is important for all of us when we try to look at today's problems in perspective. A major theme of "Forces of Habit" is that some drugs, such as coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and chocolate have become "world drugs" due to the efforts of the international pushers known as "the West." Other drugs, such as qat, kava, and betel have never caught on in the West and, as a result, have not been made into international commodities complete with huge multi-continent plantations and a complex distribution system. The West, however, has now decided that some drugs are bad because they don't work well in complex, industrialized society--cocaine, heroin, etc. Even though the British were once the major distributors of Opium, literally forcing it on the Chinese, they now oppose it. "Forces of Habit" is a fascinating but quick tour of many aspects of the history of drugs from a macro perpective. If you are looking for more details on specific drugs or a detailed analysis of a particular era, Courtwright does offer an annotated bibliography to guide you. If all you want is an overview, this is a great place to start.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 31, 2005
Format: Paperback
"Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World" by David T. Courtwright (Harvard University Press, 277 pp, $24.95) is a vivid account of the global spread of psychoactive drugs over the last 500 years. The University of North Florida historian defines drugs broadly enough to include not just the usual suspects like heroin and marijuana, but also generally legal drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine.

Courtwright's witty writing should appeal to those with a taste for black humor. The author possesses a seemingly infinite supply of vivid examples about the impact of drugs on humanity, and even upon the animal kingdom. Lions, he notes, "have learned to prey upon drunks staggering home at night from East African roadside bars."

"Forces of Habit" can help modern white-collar workers banned from smoking indoors reflect on the ferocious anti-smoking campaigns that earlier tobacco addicts endured. While American smokers are forced to risk pneumonia each winter while they puff away in the freezing doorways of office buildings, "Russian smokers suffered beatings and exile; snuff takers had their noses torn off. Chinese smokers had their heads impaled on pikes. Turkish smokers under the reign of Ahmed I endured pipe stems thrust through their noses."

Ironies abound in "Forces of Habit." Alcoholics Anonymous' co-founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, "both smoked heavily and died of cigarette-related illnesses." (Today, AA chapters searching for meeting places are bedeviled by the new prohibitions on indoor smoking. Reformed alcoholics often want to smoke to relieve the tension of staying on the wagon.)

But Courtwright has serious ambitions as well.
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