NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The History of Drug Wars -- and Accommodations

March 16, 2001

In a new book, "Forces of Habit," David Courtwright recounts the long history of mankind's addiction to every form of drug, and demonstrates the way in which drugs are woven tightly into the fabric of Western history. The story goes back almost to the beginning, with Armenians fermenting wine 6,000 years ago, Andean peasants chewing coca for 5,000 years, and Herodotus writing of Scythians "howling with pleasure" while burning marijuana. Even the famous had their addictions:

  • Otto von Bismarck and Hermann Goering shared decades-long morphine addictions.
  • Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs while guzzling cocaine-spiked tea.
  • Pulverized Green Turtle penis dissolved in beer was Cotton Mather's preferred remedy for kidney stones.

As Courtwright points out, there's a point to drugs, from safety (when alcohol was cleaner than water), to health benefits (tobacco warded off bubonic plague and today helps Parkinson's and Alzheimer's sufferers) to sensual pleasure.

Demand is relatively unflexible -- quintupling the British unemployment rate from 2 percent to 10 percent cut tobacco use by only 1 percent -- a fact that until recently gave governments a vested interest in the drug trade.

  • All governments tax narcotics, and, Courtwright says, wind up codependent with the subjects they seek to tax.
  • Charles II's government was so dependent on alcohol and tobacco revenues in the 17th century it would have gone bankrupt if its citizens had lost their vices.
  • By 1885, the British crown got half its revenues from taxes on tobacco, alcohol and tea.

The current drug situation is the legacy of a mid-19th-century "psychoactive revolution" that began with the isolation of alkaloids like morphine and the invention of the hypodermic needle.

  • Merck patented cocaine in 1862.
  • Vin Mariani (cocaine and wine) and Coca-Cola (cocaine, wine and kola nuts) followed.
  • Smith, Kline sold amphetamines as decongestants, and Bayer marketed heroin as a cough suppressant.

In the 20th century, governments shifted from drug exploitation to drug prohibition, although leaving alcohol, listed in some pharmacology texts as the most addictive drug, legal.

Source: Christopher Caldwell (Weekly Standard), "The Opiates of the Masses...and the War They've Provoked," Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2001.

For text (WSJ subscribers)


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