The best books on what the war on drugs is really about

Russell C. Crandall Author Of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs
By Russell C. Crandall

Who am I?

Over my two decades as a scholar of American foreign policy and international politics, I had multiple opportunities to serve as a Latin America foreign policy aide. Given that Latin America plays a central role in the U.S.-hatched modern war on drugs, much of my policymaking was directly or indirectly tied to drug policy. I thus wrote Drugs and Thugs above all to make sure that I had a good sense of the history of this seemingly eternal conflict, one that is “fought” as much at home as abroad. 


I wrote...

Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

By Russell C. Crandall,

Book cover of Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America's War on Drugs

What is my book about?

How can the United States chart a path forward in the war on drugs? In Drugs and Thugs, Russell Crandall uncovers the full history of this war that has lasted more than a century. As a scholar and a high-level national security advisor to both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, he provides an essential view of the economic, political, and human impacts of U.S. drug policies. Backed by extensive research, lucid and unbiased analysis of policy, and his own personal experiences, Crandall takes readers from Afghanistan to Colombia, to Peru and Mexico, to Miami International Airport, and the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez to trace the complex social networks that make up the drug trade and drug consumption. 

The books I picked & why

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Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

By Nick Reding,

Book cover of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Why this book?

Reding’s book on the methamphetamine epidemic in small-town Ohio is distressing but essential. He is exceptional in showing rather than telling how meth is in so many ways the Great American Drug. It makes you work even more maniacally, for one. And the hollowing out of Middle America makes the drug’s proactive nature even more attractive in these forgotten towns and cities. It is painful that the meth scourge might have eased but, as is so often the case, other destructive substances have quickly replaced it. 


Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

By David T. Courtwright,

Book cover of Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World

Why this book?

Forces of Habit is unbelievably wise and well-written, a tour of force on the drugs-especially illicit ones—can be what they are today. Courtwright looks at the supposedly hard drugs—marijuana, cocaine, and heroin—but also the soft ones—alcohol, nicotine, and even caffeine. I love that he forces all of us to consider how arbitrary the line is between illicit and legal, often depending on current social norms. 


Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel, an Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money, and International Corruption

By Guy Gugliotta,

Book cover of Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel, an Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money, and International Corruption

Why this book?

Decades before Netflix’s hit series Narcos, Gugliotta and Leen turned their prize-winning series of articles in The Miami Herald into a highly original book, Kings of Cocaine. What astounds me is how well the author’s uncovering the psychopathic violence, unimaginable profits, and political and social corruption of the Colombian cocaine trade. And this rot and bloodshed were not just occurring in the less developed Colombia but right inside Ronald Reagan’s America. 


El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency

By Ioan Grillo,

Book cover of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency

Why this book?

A work of intrepid journalism and sizzling writing, Grillo’s El Narco is the result of upwards of a decade following the mercurial, terrifying evolution of Mexico’s drug cartels. I’ve taught this book to my Davidson College students studying Latin American politics and they repeatedly tell me that it is their favorite book they tackle in the course. 


Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection

By Johann Hari,

Book cover of Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection

Why this book?

Hari’s Chasing the Scream is not an exhaustively researched book but it still merits listing given how viscerally the author addresses the history of the global war on drugs in the light of his own personal addiction. Hari shines in his depiction of circa 1930s U.S. Drug Cop #1, Henry J. Anslinger, who, among other dubious endeavors, sought to throw the book at jazz singer Billie Holiday, who also happened to be a heroin addict.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the war on drugs, drug trafficking, and Iowa?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the war on drugs, drug trafficking, and Iowa.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia's First Drug Paradise, and Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy if you like this list.