A penetrating study of what the author deems one of the most significant events in world history: the “psychoactive revolution.”
The “big three” of that revolution, writes Courtwright (Violent Land, 1996), were alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated products, which all over the world have been considered essential fuel for conquest and conviviality alike. Though they’re known to have deleterious effects, he writes that “the sheer scale of their production, distribution, and consumption and the degree to which they were integrated into cultures around the world made them relatively impervious to prohibition.” The “little three”—opium, cannabis, and coca—are another matter; for all the efforts to control or quash their use, they remain fantastically profitable commodities that show no signs of disappearing. Courtwright traces the origins of these substances, showing how political and economic forces have combined to “transform the everyday consciousness of billions of people and, eventually, the environment itself.” His tale is endlessly fascinating, with oddments enough to enliven a thousand dissertations and cocktail parties. Of the mid-17th century, when coffee, distilled spirits, and tobacco became widely available, the author wryly observes that those who had lived through decades of plague, economic hardship, war, riots, and famine “were people who could use a smoke and a drink.” And drugs have figured prominently in history. Otto von Bismarck was “a heavy smoker, drinker, and all-around glutton” who developed a morphine habit late in life, while amphetamines, the sub rosa drug of choice for Americans throughout the 1950s, were a staple of the Third Reich and Allied powers to keep soldiers awake, alert, and full of fight.
Courtwright announces his aim to do for drugs what William McNeill did for diseases in the classic study Plagues and Peoples. He has succeeded admirably in a book likely to become a standard.