5 Eye-opening books about drugs

Lucy Morgan 11 October 2021

These eye-opening books will challenge your assumptions around drug use

Modern understandings of drug use tend to exist within strict binaries, good or bad; safe or dangerous; legal or illegal. If pressured to adopt a stance, most of us end up piecing these scraps into vague statements along the lines of “illegal drugs are bad,” or “safe drugs are good.” Thankfully, there’s a wealth of emerging literature which tackles the questions that most of us are too scared to ask, shedding light over a politically loaded issue.

Each of these titles offers a bracing perspective towards drug use, from Michelle Alexander’s seminal critique of the “War on Drugs” in The New Jim Crow, to Adam Zmith’s earnest exploration of how poppers are interlaced with queer history in Deep Sniff. Whatever your stance on drug use, the stories contained within the following books demand an interrogation of our existing prejudices through the lens of compassion—rather than fear.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

First published in 2010, two years after the election of Barack Obama, this book is a direct challenge to any cultural complacencies surrounding institutional racism. Alexander’s central argument, that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” posits that each time racist institutions are seemingly dismantled, the state simply designs a new system, which is tailored to marginalise Black people.

This book is an eviscerating examination of how the supposed “War on Drugs” deliberately disenfranchised Black people in America, subjecting them to the inherent injustices of mass incarceration, and the lifelong stigma associated with it. Named one of the “Most Influential Books of the Last 20 Years” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Jim Crow is vital to understanding the deeply racist origins behind the criminalisation of drug use.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Chasing the Scream book cover

Johann Hari deftly traces the progression of the “War on Drugs”, from the persecution of Billie Holiday in 1950s America, to the relative success of decriminalisation in modern-day Portugal.

At the heart of this book is the question: “Who actually benefits from the criminalisation of drug use?”. Staunch defenders of the “War on Drugs” may argue that it was designed to crack down on drug dealers but, as Hari shows, criminalisation has actually created a highly competitive—not to mention lucrative—drugs trade, which leaves a devastating trail of human and societal casualties.

It’s no surprise that Chasing the Scream was a New York Times bestseller, Hari’s compassionate stance towards drug addiction commands respect.    

Drugs Without the Hot Air: Making Sense of Legal and Illegal Drugs by David Nutt

In 2009, Professor David Nutt was sacked from his position as the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

His offence? To highlight scientific evidence which shows that alcohol (a legal drug) is more harmful than cannabis (an illegal drug). In this book, Nutt advocates for a sensible, evidence-based approach towards drug-use, which sadly is a striking contrast from the sensationalised rhetoric currently perpetuated through government policy and the media.

"Criminalisation has actually created a highly competitive—not to mention lucrative—drugs trade"

Drug Use for Grown-Ups by Dr Carl L Hart

Drug Use for Grown-Ups

If you’re ready for a radically new perspective on drug use, this book—published earlier this year—dares to envisage a society in which responsible drug use can enrich our lives, as well go some way towards healing societal ills.

Dr Hart talks candidly about his own experience as someone who uses drugs—also drawing heavily from scientific research and analysis of drug policies—to argue that the fevered criminalisation of drug use has created far more harm than the actual drugs.

 As the title suggests, this book provides a measured argument, which is constructed with an open-minded, rational reader in mind.  As The New York Times Book Review pointed out, “When it comes to the legacy of [America’s] war on drugs, we should all share his outrage.”

Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures by Adam Zmith

Poppers tend to exist on the margins of societal conversations about drug use. Sold behind the counter in sex shops as “room odourisers”, their potential for pleasure has historically been dismissed as deviant—often through their perceived proximity to gay men. In this book, Adam Zmith reclaims this archaic narrative, intricately chronicling the story of poppers through and beyond queer history.

Not only is Deep Sniff an instant classic in queer literature, it’s also a welcome addition to an often-strained conversation about the legalities (and moralities) of using drugs in pursuit of pleasure, rather than solely to alleviate pain. Zmith’s reflection on poppers, which also tenderly examines topics such as masculinity, sexual curiosity, and connection, serves as an excellent blueprint for how drug use can be demystified and discussed in the future. 

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