Saturday, January 10, 2004
David Courtwright's Forces of Habit
Recently Vice Squad read Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making
of the Modern World, by historian David T. Courtwright. The book deals
with how alcohol, tobacco, caffeine (tea and coffee in particular),
chocolate, opiates, cocaine, and cannabis grew into global commodities,
as well as how some other psychoactive drugs (qat, betel nuts, kava)
failed to make the transition from indigenous area to global use. Forces
of Habit is well researched and fluidly written, and Vice Squad
learned quite a bit from it.
There are all sorts of insights from Forces of Habit that I could pass
along, but I will just provide a small, near random sample. Drugs tend
to start as medicines (at least when they spread internationally), and
only later does recreational use (and correspondingly, controversy)
become widespread. This pattern holds for distilled alcohol, tobacco,
cocaine, morphine -- and sugar! Courtwright notes that
sugar has the same habituating qualities as psychoactive drugs, and he
illustrates how the spread of many drugs has been eased by their
combination with sugar. (This has been true for what Courtwright terms
the "Big Three": alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. His "Little Three" are
opium, cocaine, and cannabis.) Taxes have played a major role in spreading
the use of psychoactive substances; in particular, lowered taxes leading to
lowered prices has often led to a surge in a drug's popularity.
Coffee, tea, chocolate, and tobacco owe their popularity in part
to the fact that they cohere well with the capitalist order -- the use
of these drugs does not present any immediate threat to productivity,
unlike alcohol. Drugs are also used to make a life of dull or arduous
labor more endurable; sometimes workers (even slave laborers) have been
paid in part in drugs of one form or another, including alcohol, opium,
and cannabis. Drug consumption and military service have historically
been closely connected, and military personnel have played a role in
spreading drug habits.
Courtwright's main argument about why some drugs spread and why drug
policies have changed so substantially over the years is that these
developments largely depend on interest of the social elites.
From the mid 16th to the end of the 19th Century, the main interest
of the elites was to raise revenue by taxing drugs, and perhaps to
quiet labor by seeing to it that workers had access to drugs. (States
become addicted to drug tax revenue -- and are subject to relapse --
in a manner not dissimilar to addicts' dependence upon drugs.) The
movement from taxation to prohibition in the late 19th Century in
part occurred because industrial processes and a mechanized military
made some forms of drug use -- alcohol in particular -- too costly.
At the same time, the therapeutic value of most recreational drugs
declined, because of improved substitutes and better overall health.
The health costs of drugs also became better established.
Courtwright notes the oft-perceived mismatch between restrictiveness
of control and social costs of a drug. Alcohol brings big problems
but is widely available; peyote is relatively safe but suppressed.
Tobacco's addictiveness and health costs are both very significant.
With regard to current drug policy, Courtwright treads lightly, and
plays his cards pretty close to the vest. He certainly doesn't
endorse calls for legalization, which he associates with "a form
of reactionary libertarianism...[p. 201]" (Vice Squad, incidentally,
believes that there should be legal channels of supply for adults
to all of the currently illicit drugs, though those channels might
be hard to access and be governed by all sorts of regulations,
including quantity restrictions and possibly user licensing and advance
purchase requirements. Vice Squad is not a libertarian, but does
favor this type of drug legalization.) Courtwright also notes that
"legalization would reset the policy clock by more than a hundred
years [p. 201]", but making these drugs illegal (e.g., cannabis
in the US in 1937) reset the policy clock by centuries, so I don't
see that as much of an argument for avoiding legalization. Courtwright
identifies middle class parents as bulwarks of drug prohibition:
they fear cannabis and other drug use by their kids, and see tough
enforcement as protecting their family, with the costs borne by others
who in part they see as deserving the harsh treatment. (Vice Squad
concurs with Courtwright's characterization, and would like to take
this point up in the not-too-distant future.)
Courtwright seems much more comfortable with harm reduction measures,
and rightly notes the significant role of the AIDS pandemic in pushing
the harm reduction agenda. He also seems comfortable with the position
of drug war "owls" (i.e., neither hawks nor doves) who believe in
types of convergence such that laws governing currently illicit drugs
be liberalized while stricter controls are put on alcohol and tobacco.
(By and large, Vice Squad supports stricter alcohol controls (though
in some areas this might just mean higher taxes.))
Well, this post has already become too long. I'll close by recommending
Forces of Habit to all of those interested in the historical
development of today's drug situation. It's a very valuable contribution.
I just found a review on-line from Jonathan Caulkins, a Rand-affiliated drug
policy expert. Haven't read it yet to see if he and I are in agreement, but
the loyal Vice Squad reader can judge for him or herself here. As
Forces of Habit was published in 2001 -- Vice Squad never claimed to be
up-to-the-minute -- no doubt there are many other reviews floating