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Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  330 ratings  ·  30 reviews
What drives the drug trade, and how has it come to be what it is today? A global history of the acquisition of progressively more potent means of altering ordinary waking consciousness, this book is the first to provide the big picture of the discovery, interchange, and exploitation of the planet's psychoactive resources, from tea and kola to opiates and amphetamines. ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published October 30th 2002 by Harvard University Press (first published 2001)
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Get X Serious
Mar 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
If nothing else, this book contains these three sentences:

"Bored, miserable creatures are more likely to seek altered consciousness than engaged, contented ones. Animals in captivity, for example, are much more likely to use intoxicants than those in the wild. And one could say that civilization itself represents a state of captivity."

Rarely do I read something that resonates so deeply within my own core set of beliefs.
Black Spring
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
4.5 stars from me. the book largely succeeds in what it sets out to do, at least as much as any single 200 page book could: describe the advent of the "psychoactive revolution," i.e. the explosion in the global traffic of mind-altering substances, and its effect on the shape taken by the modern world as we know it. i had no idea that taxes on these substances accounted for so much of the revenues of empires, even if i did already have an inkling about how the substances themselves have been used ...more
May 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: drugs, history
In comparison to any other book about drugs that I've read so far, this certainly was the most insightful insofar as it places drugs (ranging from caffeine to heroin) in a historical context in which they played a social, economic, and political role that changes through time. Meanwhile, there appears to be an anthropological aspect to drugs that only in modern times - with the means of isolating active agents, availability, and the changing pace of modern life - is brought to bear in a more una ...more
Margaret Sankey
Dec 29, 2019 rated it liked it
This would have been a great book for the Food class--a social history of drugs, from caffeine and tobacco to heroin and meth, with explorations of how it is used (coffee can be classed up, qat and betel chewing will never make it in the Global north), produced, marketed and regulated/taxed, studded with insights like the value of opiums constipating qualities to premodern urban dwellers and contaminated water, and an excellent bibliography.
Jul 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: drugs, politics, addiction

Drugs and the making of the modern world

Many things attracted me to this book. The fact that it was written by a professor of history, instead of the usual medical doctor who brilliantly explains how the addicted brain works. The idea of understanding a little bit more about the big picture around drug exploitation and the seductive appeal of power over the other, no matter the means, and how this seduction drove so many human beings to inflict such a damage over their fellow men and women, b
Feb 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a great book outlining the history of drugs and how it has shaped the modern world.’ While it is an easy read, it is pretty dense, so a lot of skimming happened.
Dec 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Courtwright's history of psychoactive substances and their role in shaping the modern world is interesting, filled with tidbits and fascinating stories. At times I found his argument less than convincing, but when he examined the role of drugs in maintaining power relationships, skewing towards a more Marxist analysis of history, he was quite compelling. The problem is that he doesn't seem to stick to one theoretical viewpoint, and his analysis of history seems rather superficial. He often takes ...more
Mr. Murphy
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Reading this book made me acutely aware of my addiction to caffeine. I cannot imagine a day without it. I'm in a bad mood without it.

Addiction is everywhere. Perhaps not all addictions are created equal, but our differing reactions to addictions to different drugs are not always rational. On some scoring systems, alcohol is one of the most dangerous and addictive drugs in the world, yet there are few restrictions for adults over 21 to purchase effectively unlimited quantities.

While drugs and al
Feb 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Interesting read on the history and effects of global interactions through drugs. From coffee to heroin, Courtright dismantles the pharmaceutical industry and the epidemic of addiction that correlates to money and power. Not 5 starts because it was hard to keep moving forward through the book when dates jump from the Industrial Revolution to current in every other chapter. I spent a lot of time re-reading pages to make sure I wasn't lost before moving on to the next page. ...more
David F.
Jan 31, 2015 rated it liked it
In this book David Courtwright, Professor of History at the University of North Florida, tells "the story of psychoactive commerce." It is Courtwright's theme that psychoactive drugs - both legal and illegal - are commodities, like bread or cloth. They are manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed and used much like any other commodity. They go in and out of public favor and new and improved products are constantly being introduced. Throughout human history, governments had generally treate ...more
Sep 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
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Oct 02, 2007 rated it really liked it
This book is great fun not least because of the author's extraordinary skill in the efficient delivery of interesting facts. The opening chapters which detail the origins of the world's major drugs are among the most informative I've read. The second half of the book while still engrossing is a less comprehensive historic analysis of drug use and prohibition. Courtwright concentrates on economics at the expense of culture emphasizing production and commerce rather than demand and moral oppositio ...more
Michael Lin
Apr 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
All the stuff you never knew about the histories of drugs, especially alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, marijuana and opium.

How could opium and marijuana be benign in India for centuries before the british arrived, but destroy entire cities afterwards?
Why was alcohol pushed by rich and powerful onto the poor and the colonized as a form of wage slavery, but only up to the industrial revolution, when it become the devil's drink?
How did the taxing alcohol and tobacco through expensive licensing fees ac
Jul 23, 2011 added it
Shelves: reviewed
Lots of great information here. (Did you know the Marquis de Sade used cacao suppositories? That FDR's grandfather was an opium smuggler? That Emma Goldman smoked 2 packs a day? That Franco paid his Berber troops partly in hashish? I didn't.) Even more impressive is the way Courtwright uses his many varied sources to present a coherent history of drugs and their impact on society in a relatively short space. I especially liked his discussion of the Third World favorites that have never made it t ...more
Erik Graff
Oct 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: no one
This is a good, accessible socio-economic study of the history of the global drug trades--a fine background for any informed discussion of drug policy.

As regards the United States, which has effectively set global drug policies since World War II, the ostensible purposes of drug policies are so radically at variance with the actual consequences of these policies that it is fair to turn the equation around. Rather than thinking of the avowed intents of the policy formulators, think of the real e
Sep 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: general public, history students, drug policy students
Courtwright does an excellent job to cover the history of psychoactive drugs and how they have shaped the modern world. He doesn't advocate for any particular viewpoint, whether political, social, religious, moral. Instead, he explores the history of various ongoing debates and issues relating to drugs, and evenhandedly covers the many sides of each. Perhaps the best thing is that he makes the material interesting. He shows why past issues remain relevant today, and how they shaped modern policy ...more
John Jung
Aug 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Forces of Habit is a social history rather than a neuro-physio-chemical discussion of a range of psychoactive drugs,not limited to legal ones (alcohol and tobacco) or illegal ones (cocaine, marijuna, heroin)that are most commonly problematic. Courtwright appropriately includes coverage of chocolate, cocoa, tea, and sugar as addictive substances. Unlike most social science books on psychoactive drugs that focus on psychological, sociological, and legal aspects, Courtwright places much needed atte ...more
Jun 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, drugs
'Forces of habit' focusses on the psychoactive revolution that occured after the discovery of the New World. It's mainly about trafficing and how some drugs are made deviant and others are not. Even though it is an interesting read I hoped it gave more insight on how the general public thought about these drugs, it's legislation and it's deviance. By times I thought it was quite difficult to read because there was no real chronology it Courtwright's writing nor was there a good arrangment of sub ...more
Dec 04, 2015 rated it it was ok
Some nice information on the commodification and subsequent control of substances across the globe (including a wonderful few pages on the summation of the Duke Tobacco Company rise). However, it pales in comparison to the thorough job Pursuit of Oblivion does of tracing drugs in the post WWII era, and suffers in its latter half. Also adopts, for no certain reason, an anti-legalization/decriminalization stance, and believes either of these alternatives with retard some sort of progress.
Never th
Dave Black
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
While this book has a lot of good information, it doesn't really come together to tell any cohesive story, other than that drugs have spread over the past 500 years, unevenly and in fits and starts. There's no real overarching argument, and the work suffers from a lack of focus. I think the chapters would have been better ordered either chronologically, or by drug, rather than thematically as they are, with no real regard for the timeline.

Worth a read, but don't expect too much.
Mar 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lost, health, history, herb
“Nature is parsimonious with pleasure . . . ”

A highly readable comprehensive history on the interplay between habitation, addiction, money, and cultures. Deals with sugar, caffeine, tobacco, coca, alcohol, opiates, cannabis and to a lesser extent: qat, hallucinogens, and absinthe.

A must for understanding colonialism and the world today.
Aug 03, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Historians, drug users, sociologists
Shelves: drugs, politics, deviance
Really good historical account of the trade with legal and illegal drugs world wide, going back to around the time of the middle ages. Maybe too much focused on the economic side of the trade for my tastes, talking about taxes and that sort of stuff, but there’s a good measure of sociological and anthropological takes on the subject also.
Mar 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating synopsis of six substances in our world which are habit-forming, including sugar, tea, coffee, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. Interesting conclusions about the human condition in general and why we are drawn to things that make us feel better, despite knowing their long-term negative effects. Also insightful social commentary.
Mar 07, 2009 rated it liked it
I haven't finished this one but it needs to get back to the library. This book is full on information about the history of drug trade and addiction. Very interesting. I learned about events in history I had never heard of before. Quite eye opening. It's long, and is so full of information it can be overwhelming, but if you are interested in the topic, this book certainly covers it! ...more
Mike Hayden
Oct 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I'm not a historian but this book offers an interesting and potentially radical way of thinking about what made the modern world. Forget about 'the great man of history' syndrome, empire was built due to addiction and our craving after psychoactive substaces. Witty and trans-atlantic in scope, 《Forces of Habit》appears well researched and is well written and stuctured. ...more
Aug 29, 2007 rated it really liked it
I read it for a class. Interesting, in that it outlines the social history for all different types of drugs, including caffeine and sugar (if I remember correctly). Discusses how drugs and the black market system created by the War on Drugs reinforces certain groups' power while leaving other groups "excluded". ...more
Siying Dong
Aug 27, 2016 rated it liked it
The first two chapters are interesting. They went through the four major addictive drugs: Tobacco, Alcohol, Caffeine and Cacao, and three minor ones: Opium, Cannabis and Coca. I hope it to cover more though.

Other chapters are unorganized, fragmented and confusion. A little bit boring.
Jan 17, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: medicine, history
Very informative book on the worldwide spread of addicting substances of many continents since the period of European colonization.
Aug 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Interesting and eye opening!
rated it liked it
Jan 24, 2008
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David Courtwright is known for his books on drug use and drug policy in American and world history (Dark Paradise, Addicts Who Survived, and Forces of Habit) and for his books on the special problems of frontier environments (Violent Land and Sky as Frontier). His most recent book, No Right Turn, chronicles the tumultuous politics and surprising outcome of the culture war that engulfed America in ...more

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