Forbidden Fruit: A Cultural Study of Drugs

Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern worldby David CourtwrightHarvard University Press256 pp., $24.95

"Be happy and partake, except of the forbidden fruit, has always been a hard message to swallow," writes David Courtwright in Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World, in an attempt to summarize a potentially fatal flaw of human nature. Courtwright examines every historical detail of the development of drugs: their discovery, whether accidental or man-made, and their evolution and use in society. He cleverly toys with our present-day notion of the term "drug," examining a range of products that includes the illegal substances such as cocaine, marijuana, opium, as well as certain legalized substances like caffeine, tobacco, alcohol and even sugar. Referring to what he calls the "psychoactive revolution," Courtwright examines how and why certain drugs came to be so readily available and popular, while others seemed to fizzle at their unnoticed beginnings. Forces of Habit is a solid, well-written and comprehensive span of the history of drugs that pulls information in from all aspects from trade to consumption.

A standard classification of the main drugs under discussion soon emerges in the book, and Courtwright focuses his first chapters on what he calls the "Big Three" and the "Little Three." Contrary to intuition, the "Big Three" includes the legal and mass-produced and consumed alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. The "Little Three" conforms to the typical notion of drugs as illegal substances, produced on a much smaller scale. These include opium, cannabis and coca. Courtwright's market-centered classification of these drugs foreshadows the economic emphasis in his historical accounts of each drug. But what about the drugs that didn't make the list? Courtwright not only emphasizes the reasons why the larger-scale drugs became globalized, but also why the others remain local and regional commodities to this day. Apparently drugs such as kava, a beverage made from a pepper root in the Pacific Islands, and qat, a leaf product that is generally chewed, never caught on because of the former's taste of "chalk and body sweat" and the latter's tendency to cause constipation and nausea. Drug users were willing to make sacrifices for the high, but as Courtwright points out, the markets were overflowing with more potent drugs that were more pleasing to the senses.

Courtwright's writings even draw the Harvard social scene into the drug chronology. In tracking the evolution and boom of LSD, he cites Timothy Leary, a former professor of psychology at Harvard, as a prime example of the huge effect that drugs can have on an individual's life. Leary's statement, "LSD is more important than Harvard," accurately sums up his decision to drop out of academia and spend his life as a LSD groupie. And while Courtwright provides glimpses throughout Forces of Habit of the varying degrees of addictions that ultimately drove the drug trade and globalization, he also explains cultural stigmas that secured the failure of so many potential drug markets. For example, because the Chinese "equate hallucination with mental illness," Leary's LSD phenomenon was doomed to fail in their country. Here Courtwright offers a nice insight to cultural groups around the world and poses the question of what our drug habits say about our society today.

Because the beginning of the book is very historically centered in the economics and politics of the drug trade itself, Courtwright's accounts don't generally pull on one's heartstrings. Avoiding a simplistic negative focus on the reality of drug use, Courtwright counterbalances these facts with an examination of why it all happened the way it did: the desire and demand for the drugs on one side and the economics and large profits on the other. However, Courtwright sneaks in some amazing insights between his pages of history, namely a direct comparison between the drug trade and the atomic bomb, paralleling their investment in technology and cause of widespread death.

Forces of Habit affords the reader an in-depth understanding of the history of drugs in society, not tailored to a specific platform or program of reform. In fact, Courtwright mentions little about the future of drugs and the drug trade in his accounts, and when he does veer towards moral judgments, he states them simply and concisely. But if you're looking for a serious emotional scrutiny of present day drug issues, you'll have to go see the movie Traffic. Courtwright sticks to his historical format until the very end, taking only the final few paragraphs for his personal thoughts on what he sees for the coming years. And while Courtwright's final words are far from optimistic, it's true that we must first face the problem and its history before anything can be concluded about the future.