Today's campaign to "crack down on crack" and the controversy surrounding mandatory drug-testing make the coverage of narcotics control in The American Disease timely and important. A classic study of the development of drug laws in the U.S., the book examines the relations between public outcry and the creation of prohibitive drug laws from the end of the Civil War to the present day. (Originally published in 1973, the book is now updated by the addition of a new chapter and introduction to cover developments in the past 15 years.)
According to Dr. Musto, Americans' attitudes toward drugs have followed a cyclic pattern of tolerance and restraint. Marshalling an impressive amount of evidence, he supports the theory that acceptance wanes over a 20 to 30-year period of extensive drug use and is followed by a period of intolerance, during which there is a danger of excessive restraints and false links between drug use and feared minorities. At the turn of the century, when cocaine changed suddenly from the all-American tonic to the most feared of all drugs, it was linked to fears of black Americans. Racial tensions in the American South increased, lynchings reached a peak, and law officers increased the caliber of their guns. Proponents of the closing of opiate-maintenance clinics, who succeeded with a 1919 Supreme Court decision outlawing the maintenance of "drug fiends," wildly exaggerated the number of drug users and linked them to feared immigrant groups such as the Chinese. The first federal anti-marijuana law, in 1937, was partly a response to the threat of laid-off Mexican farm workers, who cultivated the plant for personal use.
In detailing the connection between waves of public repulsion and narcotics control, Musto examines American foreign policy and the role played by physicians and the emerging pharmaceutical industry. While not prescriptive, his book offers needed insights as we enter yet another phase of drug intolerancethe second this century. Musto raises critical questions lawmakers and other citizens must consider as they devise ways of curbing drug use while avoiding the sort of Draconian overkill that has in the past set the stage for a reactionary wave of drug enthusiasm. In particular, he expresses concern over the potential for drug testing to be overzealously applied in an attempt to "eliminate" drug abuse from American society.