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Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 15, Number 2, June 2004
pp. 255-258 | 10.1353/jwh.2004.0027

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of World History 15.2 (2004) 255-258

Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. by David T. Courtwright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.277 + viii pp. $24.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

With a knack for anecdote as well as grand synthesis, David T. Courtwright, a professor of history at the University of North Florida, has written a concise, highly readable world history of drugs. He takes us from ganja smoking in ancient India to vodka swilling in modern Russia, and he argues that the globalization of increasingly potent drugs—a development he calls "the psychoactive revolution"—constitutes "one of the signal events in world history" (p. 2). Along the way, this briskly written and richly illustrated book makes a signal contribution to both drug and world historiography.

Unlike most drug histories that home in on a particular elixir, Forces of Habit is a comparative study, borrowing conventions from a growing library of commodity books—on cod, salt, jade, and more—while maintaining an expansive scope. It focuses not only on illicit substances such as opium, cocaine, and marijuana but also the "Big Three": alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. Considering all these drugs together allows Courtwright to ponder two oversized questions. First, why have some drugs become mass market commodities, while others—kava, betel, qat, and peyote, for instance—remain confined to regional markets? And second, why have some psychoactive substances remained legal, while governments spend billions to suppress others?

In grappling with the first question, Courtwright offers several hypotheses. Betel chewing makes ugly teeth. Qat loses potency too quickly for transoceanic trade. Christian colonizers favored sedation over hallucination. As these explanations suggest, the cultural and economic preferences of Europeans, who dominated world trade in the modern era, often decided whether or not a drug achieved global reach. To this Courtwright adds a Marxian twist. Those substances that proved compatible with mass production, profitable trade, and labor discipline would export their pleasures and perils to the world.

To answer the second question on drug acceptance and prohibition, Courtwright pieces together an overarching, mostly economic narrative of drug history from the early modern era to the present. Despite initial efforts at suppression—early "Chinese smokers had theirheads impaled on pikes" (p. 16)—national leaders soon accommodated themselves to recreational drug use, especially once they realized how much money they could make. Noting that by 1885 close to half of the British government's gross revenue came from drug taxes, Courtwright observes that governments "have a way of becoming dependent on drug taxes" (p. 156).

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, though, just as scientific advances, advertising, and opium wars were bringing drug addiction to the masses, governments abruptly reversed course again, shifting from taxation to restriction. As before, Courtwright offers multiple explanations, including the rising tide of nationalism that caused leaders to fret about the virility of their populations, but he settles on economics as the determining factor. It was one thing to palliate coolies and slaves with opium and rum, he argues, but quite another to entrust expensive machinery to an inebriated proletariat. Moreover, some drugs had amassed such socioeconomic power by the dawn of the prohibitionist era—fully 13 percent of France's population worked in the alcohol business in the early 1900s (p. 190)—that they became virtually immune to outright abolition.

Still, economics alone cannot explain why some drugs have remained legal, even culturally exalted. Caffeine is the easiest to account for. It enhances productivity and comes with relatively few side effects. In short, it "intoxicates without inviting the police" (p. 189). Likewise, cigarettes rarely start brawls and their carcinogens take years to kick in, which allowed tobacco conglomerates to maintain a smokescreen of harmlessness until recently. Alcohol, then, is the mystery. Why does one of the most addictive, dangerous, and deadly drugs known to science remain widely available almost everywhere? Here again, Courtwright offers a cocktail of reasons, including the fondness of many world leaders for drink, but this time he settles on culture as the primary ingredient. Examining the failure of temperance efforts in the United States and Russia, he concludes, "a pattern of drug use...