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The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control
by David F. Musto
Oxford University Press 
Reviewed by K. Trout, 4/16/2006

David F. Musto presents a penetrating assessment of the history of American anti-drug policies, and the impact of propaganda on public opinion. There is no single book that does a better job of summarizing the history of—and motivations driving—the intensive efforts directed against those who use inebriating substances, and how social controls on these people have been orchestrated within American society. Drawing heavily from the archives of law enforcement, public health, and commerce, Musto constructs a spell-binding account of the growth of anti-drug sentiments. These sentiments culminated into two phases of extensive social programs of intolerance and intentional attempts at eradicating drug users: the first reaching its nearly successful peak prior to when the Cold War displaced its paramount importance in the public mind, and the second currently continuing to build with no end in sight. Most noteworthy is his assessment of how intensive propaganda can shape public perceptions and create an atmosphere of bigotry. Also interesting is Musto’s observation that rights of drug users have never entered into consideration (except by the occasional lone, and routinely ignored, dissenting voice), but rather the entire issue remains one of suppression and control, simply swinging from one extreme—labeling drug users as criminals and thus passing laws to punish them (“drug intolerance”)—to the other—viewing drug users as sick people and thus taking actions to “cure” them (a position Musto refers to as “drug tolerance”).

However the same sources that Musto relies on that allow him to present his unique perspective also heavily influence Musto’s own perceptions. This underscores the manner in which selective factual presentation (and representation) can powerfully influence and shape people’s decision-making processes. For example, Musto’s apparent consideration of LSD as simply another addictive substance, when he bemoans the plight of the “LSD addict,” clearly indicates the power of misdirection and blindered vision that the equating of the “demon drugs” has effectively produced in those who draw their education from this pool. In fact, this is obvious right from his title, drawn from an early political (and quite mistaken) pronouncement of drug abuse as the “American disease.” Somehow, Musto entirely missed H.L. Mencken’s wry retort and square-on-the-head assessment of the true American disease being not the use of inebriants, which can be found worldwide and throughout innumerable cultures from the stone age to modern day, but rather the pathological tendency/desire to control the free will and actions of individuals to regulate their own consciousness!

To his credit, though, Musto clearly and repeatedly lays out the peculiar and vicious response to the pursuit of drug- or alcohol-induced pleasures by others arising from its basis upon fear and its perceived threat to a Christian sense of morality. Most, if not all, of the anti-drug warriors Musto presents clearly viewed themselves as champions of the conservative right in an age-old struggle between good and evil. This has not changed. It is quite illuminating that, despite his obviously in-depth study, Musto remains firmly entrenched in his perception of drug use as a social problem that needs some type of further control, if not outright elimination. Indeed, Musto somehow sees drug elimination as an inevitable end point, and fails to grasp what even could be considered responsible drug use.

It’s not clear exactly what Musto truly missed, however, and what he simply did not include so as not to risk alienating the more conservative among his readers. Musto appropriately notes the double-standard applied by the courts to alcohol as opposed to other drugs, such as the courts eventually supporting bans of any drugs that state and federal legislators saw fit but requiring a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol. He also clearly notes that the crime and violence resulting from alcohol abuse far outweighs that resulting even from the demonized opiates. Musto justifiably worries that the response may go too far as the intensity mounts to eradicate not simply drug use but drug users, and thus may threaten other areas by again allowing legislative manipulation through fear and emotional response. Yet he seemingly fails to realize that unless basic rights of freedom of thought, perception, and mind are protected and guaranteed for all, they are in fact guaranteed for none.

Despite its occasional myopic failings, this is a highly recommended book for anyone who wants a better understanding about why America is in the mess it is in today and how we got here.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review, 2000

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