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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Nick Reding,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Methland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize
Winner of the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism

Named a best book of the year by:
the Los Angeles Times
the San Francisco Chronicle
the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
the Chicago Tribune
the Seattle Times

"A stunning look at a problem that has dire consequences for our country.”-New York Post

The dramatic story of Methamphetamine as it comes to the American Heartland-a timely, moving, account of one community's attempt to confront the epidemic and see their way to a brighter future.

The bestselling book that launched meth back into…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By David T. Courtwright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forces of Habit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What drives the drug trade, and how has it come to be what it is today? A global history of the acquisition of progressively more potent means of altering ordinary waking consciousness, this book is the first to provide the big picture of the discovery, interchange, and exploitation of the planet's psychoactive resources, from tea and kola to opiates and amphetamines.

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Guy Gugliotta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kings of Cocaine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the story of the most successful cocaine dealers in the world: Pablo Escobar Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez, Carlos Lehder Rivas and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. In the 1980s they controlled more than fifty percent of the cocaine flowing into the United States. The cocaine trade is capitalism on overdrive -- supply meeting demand on exponential levels. Here you'll find the story of how the modern cocaine business started and how it turned a rag tag group of hippies and sociopaths into regal kings as they stumbled from small-time suitcase smuggling to levels of unimaginable sophistication and daring.…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Ioan Grillo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked El Narco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'War' is no exaggeration in discussing the bloodshed that has terrorized Mexico in the past decades. As rival cartels battle for control of a billion-dollar drug trade, the body count- 23,000 dead in five years - and sheer horror beggar the imagination of journalistic witnesses. Cartel gunmen have shot up schools and rehabilitation centers, and murdered the entire families of those who defy them. Reformers and law enforcement officials have been gunned down within hours of taking office. Headless corpses are dumped on streets to intimidate rivals, and severed heads are rolled onto dancefloors as messages to would-be opponents. And…

Book cover of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Why did I love 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.  

By Johann Hari,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Chasing the Scream as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times Bestseller

What if everything you think you know about addiction is wrong? Johann Hari's journey into the heart of the war on drugs led him to ask this question--and to write the book that gave rise to his viral TED talk, viewed more than 62 million times, and inspired the feature film The United States vs. Billie Holiday and the documentary series The Fix.

One of Johann Hari's earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of his relatives and not being able to. As he grew older, he realized he had addiction in his…

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