A book titled “Addicts who survived: An oral history of Narcotic Use in America before 1965” by David Courtwright et al. is a history of the American addiction to narcotics problem and anti-drug policies. The value of this work is in the approach that the authors took to uncover the truth — they combined historical facts with personal narratives of people who had an addiction and survived. The authors highlight how varied factors, mainly race, person’s background and social status in combination with the flawed justice system contributed to the development of the drug addiction problem in the United States. The book by Courtwright et al. helps the reader understand the flaws of the past and current policies and the roots of this problem that can be traced back to the 1920s.
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In recent years, the United States were affected by the opioid crisis since many of the state’s citizens became addicted after they were prescribed with these medications. In this light, Courtwright’s book is of even more value for the historians, policymakers, and the wider society, since it addresses many myths about drug use. For example, this book debunks the idea that opioids taken under medical supervision cannot make one develop a drug addiction. Back in 1906, doctors “overprescribed narcotics” and manufacturers of medications put narcotics into their drugs without informing the patients of this on the label of the product (2). Therefore, a parallel can be drawn between the modern-day opioid crisis and the one in the past, since in both cases patients did not understand the potential consequences of them taking opioids.
The social status and the attitudes of people towards addicts and minorities played a role in stigmatising drug abuse. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the common belief was that drug addicts are to blame for their addiction. Courtwright et al. describe the policies of that time as “unprecedentedly strict and punitive” (10). Thus, the laws were developed with the belief that individuals should be punished for their inability to overcome their bad habits.
As Courtwright et al. progress in explaining the government’s policies implemented to address the problem, it becomes apparent that the strategy was targeting the addicts and not their addiction. Moreover, one’s race and social status intensified the problem since data shows that “minorities are treated prejudicially” and are sent to prison or institutions for addicts (Courtwright et al., 20). Therefore, the societal attitudes contribute to widespread drug abuse.
The improper justice system contributed to the developing issue of narcotics use. Courtwright et al. use personal stories of former addicts to illustrate how their drug abuse became worse after they were sent to prison. Courtwright et al. collected evidence from former drug addicts, in total, the book has over 30 stories from individuals who faced the drug addiction problem (xv). In one of these stories, Sophia, a prostitute who became addicted to drugs, was sentenced to five years in prison. After five years, when she was released from jail, she was still an addict, although the purpose of her sentencing is to help her overcome the addiction. Therefore, the justice system contributed to the intensification of the drug abuse problem.
Overall, the book “Addicts who survived: An oral history of Narcotic Use in America before 1965” by Courtwright et al. helps understand the premise of the drug abuse problem in the states. The authors consider the policies that were in place in the 1920s and 1960s and the approach of blaming the addicts instead of helping them. The stories of addicts, such as Sophia, help understand that prison sentencing does not help overcome drug addiction.
Courtwright, David T., et al. Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America before 1965. University of Tennessee Press, 2013.
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