Book Review Essay: Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World<br>

September 25, 2007

With almost all U.S. military assistance to Latin America now justified by the war on drugs, any consideration of U.S. policy towards the region must take counternarcotics operations into account. The consistent failure of U.S. counternarcotics policies to achieve their objectives, and the “collateral damage”—including skyrocketing prison populations at home and increased support for abusive militaries abroad—has many questioning the logic of these policies. These three books addressing the evolution of U.S. drug policies help explain why.

Forces of Habit, one of the most recent additions to the drug war library, is in many ways the most frustrating of the three. Courtwright offers a sweeping history of human chemistry-altering substances as commodities, from sugar and coffee to cigarettes and cocaine. This approach provides a useful contribution to current interest in global capitalism and scholarship on the historical development of commodity flows, and transcends the artificial divide between legal and illegal narcotics that dominates the U.S. policy debate. Attempting such an ambitious saga in a relatively short book is bound to leave some holes, however, and his anecdotal approach to history leaves many questions unanswered.

One of the book’s gaps stems from its focus on the contrasts between the medical and addictive uses of narcotics, with minimal discussion of the role of recreational drug use. Part of Courtwright’s thesis is that the advances that allowed for the chemical creation of modern drugs are part and parcel of the technological excesses of capitalist development. He argues that increasingly sophisticated chemical narcotics production has produced highs and addictions beyond the ability of the human body to assimilate.

The picture Courtwright paints is generally a depressing one, in which people trapped in the “iron cage” of wage labor resort to self-destructive behavior. His analysis is insightful as far as it goes, but he ignores the central role that mind-altering narcotics have played throughout human history in religious and social rituals, as well as the simple possibilities of pleasure provided by recreational drug use. And keep in mind that for Courtwright this includes a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of Merlot with one’s evening meal, two small pleasures not currently classified as “illicit.”

He ends with a brief and insufficiently developed section on contemporary counternarcotics policies. Like many critics of the damage wrought by unfettered capitalism and uncontrolled technological expansion, he urges more, not less, government intervention in the narcotics trade—a position greatly at odds with those urging reform of restrictive U.S. drug laws. I find little to support his assertion that “the movement toward restrictive categorization was fundamentally progressive in nature…its basic premise was both correct and humane.” His larger argument, however, that drug production and consumption must be understood within the framework of capitalist expansion, is a novel and useful contribution to the current debates about drugs.

Mike Gray offers a gripping history of U.S. counternarcotics policies since the turn of the century. He focuses on charismatic individuals who both shaped and harnessed domestic attitudes about drug use to their own political advantage, often at the expense of effective policies. He critiques the strict prohibitionist framework of current policies, and reveals how well-intentioned researchers and physicians lost control of the drug policy debates, while fear-mongering politicians hijacked the agenda. His alternative prescription for the United States is the success story provided by England’s Chapel Street Clinic, in which doctors helped hardcore addicts manage their addiction and so return to productive lives.

This is a rapid-fire swing through history that left me wanting more, and in at least one case, wondering about the veracity of his reporting. He repeats the Colombian military’s line attributing the 1985 destruction of the Colombian Palace of Justice to guerrillas in league with drug traffickers fighting extradition. In fact, the guerrillas, while desperately misguided, acted on their own and the destruction of the Palace and the death of the Justices was the fault of horribly bungled military efforts to recapture the building; see Ana Carrigan’s Palace of Justice. While this slip does not effect his larger argument, it left me concerned about the details of other incidents I know less well. For readers new to these debates, however, this book is a great place to start for an easy read that covers a lot of ground.

Michael Massing’s longer, more densely packed book also has the advantage of being the most focused of the three. He shifts between the trials and tribulations of charismatic Spanish Harlem outreach counselor Raphael Flores, and a history of drug policy debates since the late 1960s and Nixon’s first “War on Drugs.” His sympathetic yet unflinching stories of the struggles of Flores’ addicts to get off drugs, and the personal and bureaucratic hurdles they face, demonstrate a nuanced understanding of drug use beyond the sound bites.

The book’s middle section on Washington, tracing the “counterrevolution” in drug policy and the evolution of drug war bureaucracies and citizen action groups should be required reading for anyone interested in weighing in on current debates. Interestingly, he finds an unexpected model in the drug policies of the early Nixon Administration (a period glanced over by Gray), in which domestic and foreign drug policies operations were separate, and a national treatment network offered comprehensive assistance. While it seems unlikely that President Bush Jr. will provide a “Nixon in China” window for drug policy, this book certainly suggests it would be a welcome step.

Winifred Tate is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at New York University, and a frequent contributor to NACLA Report.


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