Drug History in the U.S.

The following are books that provide a detailed look into how the United States has historically approached the war on drugs. These eye opening classics will forever change the way you think about criminalizing drug use and the use of punishment to fix a mental health crisis.

Chasing the Scream

“Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari is detailed and comprehensive exploration of the global war on drugs.

Hari dives right into the very heart of this century-long conflict, from its historical inception to its present-day consequences.

Drawing from an array of personal stories and empirical research, he questions the effectiveness and morality of drug criminalization, suggesting that addiction is more a social disease than a criminal matter. Hari brings to light the failures of the current system and the desperate need for radical change, making for a thought-provoking read.

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”


  • Original Date of Publication: January 20, 2015
  • Author: Johann Hari
  • Number of Pages: 400



“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones delves into the opiate crisis that has gripped the United States. It’s an absolutely haunting book for anyone who has had first hand experience into this crisis.

Quinones weaves together two distinct tales: one of the rise of prescription painkiller usage in suburban America and the other of the black tar heroin trade facilitated by small-town Mexican entrepreneurs.

He takes readers on a journey from the rusted factories and pill mills of the U.S. to the poppy fields of Mexico, laying bare the socio-economic factors and systematic failures that led to this public health catastrophe. A chilling read, “Dreamland” invites us to confront the stark realities of the opiate crisis.

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”


  • Original Date of Publication: April 21, 2015
  • Author: Sam Quinones
  • Number of Pages: 384

Undoing Drugs

“Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction” by Maia Szalavitz offers an in-depth look into the concept of harm reduction – a pragmatic yet controversial approach to addressing substance abuse.

Rather than advocating for complete abstinence, harm reduction emphasizes minimizing the negative consequences of drug use, affirming the dignity and autonomy of people who use drugs.

Szalavitz details the history and principles of this movement, demonstrating its potential to humanize drug policies and reshape societal attitudes towards addiction. “Undoing Drugs” compels readers to rethink the nature of drug use and the ways in which society responds to it.

“Policies to change risky behavior cannot be more harmful than the behavior they seek to alter.”

  • Original Date of Publication: June 8, 2021
  • Author: Maia Szalavitz
  • Number of Pages: 320

The Urge

“The Urge: Our History of Addiction” by Carl Erik Fisher serves as an insightful journey into the expansive landscape of addiction.

Fisher, a psychiatrist and bioethicist, deconstructs the multi-faceted concept of addiction through a tapestry of personal, cultural, and scientific narratives.

He untangles the interactions between biology, environment, and society that contribute to substance use disorders. By tracing the history of how different cultures have understood and dealt with addiction, Fisher exposes the flaws in our current understanding and treatment strategies. This book is an illuminating examination of addiction, inviting a more compassionate and nuanced perspective on this deeply human issue.

“One simple pivot we could do is to shift our focus away from controlling people’s use to meeting people where they are and helping them with what matters most in their life.”


  • Original Date of Publication: 2023
  • Author: Carl Erik Fisher
  • Number of Pages: 400

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” is an in-depth exploration of addiction from the perspective of physician Gabor Maté.

Drawing upon his years of experience working with patients in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Maté unravels the intricate web of personal, social, and neurological factors that underpin addiction.

He argues that addiction is rooted in trauma and emotional pain, extending far beyond the realm of substances to impact nearly every facet of human existence.

Packed with heartrending stories about the impact of the war on drugs, scientific insights, and radical compassion, this book encourages readers to view addiction through a lens of empathy, challenging societal stigmas and calling for a more humane approach to treatment.

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors.”


  • Original Date of Publication: January 1, 2008
  • Author: Gabor Maté
  • Number of Pages: 520

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