Forces of Habit: Drugs and the making of the modern world

                                                             In Forces of Habit, the author examines the historical evidence of known drug use in order to establish how each drug found its place in society.  David Courtwright does not differentiate between legal and illegal drugs in looking at the effects of the drug.  This is important because the licit/illicit label is really just a matter of timing.  The status of a particular drug, both legally and culturally, changes as societies develop better ways to administer and distribute a drug as well as advances allowing people to see the side effects.  The most significant point in the book is that there is usually a correlation between a drug’s legal status, the politics of the major distributors, and the evidence of misuse and health problems.            In discussing the prevention techniques, it is first important to realize that there is a balance producing societies must adhere to.  This is the balance between the perceived harmful effects of a drugs and the income derived from its distribution.  This balance has to be maintained both for illicit drugs and prevention and licit drugs and taxation.  The prevention policies should reflect the relative harm the drug does to a person or society as a whole.  At the other end if a widespread legal drug is taxed too heavily, the black market will respond as it does with banned drugs.            Drugs could not come into popular use unless there are people making a lot of money as producers or distributors. Even drugs that can be created or found by the consumer, it requires large economies of scale to make a drug efficient and affordable for the full spectrum of society.  The first parts of Forces of Habit examine how some of the most common drugs were discovered and distributed.  With the exception of alcohol, these drugs such as tea and opium were local plants that were introduced sparingly to other cultures through warfare or trading.  Once the positive effects of the drugs were known, merchants began capitalizing on what was a delicacy at first.  They became cash crops because the markets grew very rapidly and had a seemingly inexhaustible demand.  Without education as to the harms of a drug or treatment available, a drug market is constantly growing because of tolerance and addiction.  The big three, Alcohol, tobacco and caffeine became extremely widespread because of the demand Europeans developed for them and the plantation system, which lowered the price to the workingman’s level while still yielding huge profits for the importers and the government through taxes.  Courtwright makes the point that it was this selective distribution by Europeans that led to the unalterable position these substances occupy in western societies today.            The puzzle of distribution deals with how to most effectively get a drug into the consumer’s body.  The refining process and the developments of global commerce made the distribution of certain drugs economically feasible.  A refined product such as cocaine vs. coca leaves or spirits vs. wine not only has a much longer shelf life but is more quickly absorbed, intensifying the effects and experience of the user.  The problem with trying to identify how certain drugs were chosen to be mass produced by Europeans is that they associated many drugs with the cultures in which they were found and so many drugs were viewed as evil, or in league with godless societies.            With the rise of the scientific process and advances in medicine, the harmful effects of many drugs became provable and more evident and so the drugs for pleasure market took a backseat to the drugs as medicine market. The irony is that the use of these drugs was not as widespread before they came in medicinal form.  Drugs like opium have always been seen as having some curative properties but the disguise and miraculous claims by doctors prompted an epidemic of patent medicines that were just as harmful as their illegal counterparts.  People trusted their doctors and certainly enjoyed the medicine, but when the abuses in the patent medicine industries were exposed and some very widely distributed drugs were outlawed a great many people were already addicted.            The most useful thing Courtwright gives us in regards to prevention is the knowledge of why people use drugs.  Drugs are poisons and the continuing consumption of poison seemingly contradicts the law of natural selection. (p.91)  The authors looks at several different theories about why people would wants to alter their consciousness but the bottom line is that most people in the world constantly do things they do not want to do and an escape from this unpleasant reality is embraced.  This escape could be taken after something unpleasant to change mindset or during to offset the reality of the task itself.  It is also important to note that most drugs operate on the pleasure center of the brain and in general, particularly if the effects are not well known, people will do what makes them feel good.             Ultimately it would seem that education is the most powerful tool in preventing the use of harmful drugs.  This education should not only be about the effects of a particular drug but also about who is using them and why.  People who are poor are more likely to be depressed and people who are depressed are more likely to abuse drugs.  We are also bombarded from the right and the left by statement of opinions with very few discernable facts being shown.  Apparently some drugs are good and some drugs are bad but how is the public supposed to know which are which when you turn on the TV and are told that marijuana will make you run down a group of schoolchildren while Propecia will give a man an erection but may cause explosive diarrhea.  Attacking the roots of production has historically been a failure while attacking the roots of abuse has had some success, perhaps a war on poverty instead of a war on drugs might be more effective.           

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