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Habit Forming

Drug Addiction in America, 1776-1914

Elizabeth Kelly Gray

Publication Date - 16 December 2022

ISBN: 9780197646694

352 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


Habitual drug use in the United States is at least as old as the nation itself. Habit Forming traces the history of unregulated drug use and dependency before 1914, when the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act limited sales of opiates and cocaine under US law. Many Americans used opiates and other drugs medically and became addicted. Some tried Hasheesh Candy, injected morphine, or visited opium dens, but neither use nor addiction was linked to crime, due to the dearth of restrictive laws. After the Civil War, American presses published extensively about domestic addiction. Later in the nineteenth century, many used cocaine and heroin as medicine. As addiction became a major public health issue, commentators typically sympathized with white, middle-class drug users, while criticizing such use by poor or working-class people and people of color. When habituation was associated with middle-class morphine users, few advocated for restricted drug access. By the 1910s, as use was increasingly associated with poor young men, support for regulations increased. In outlawing users' access to habit-forming drugs at the national level, a public health problem became a larger legal and social problem, one with an enduring influence on American drug laws and their enforcement.


  • Explores the history of habit-forming drugs in the United States, when regulation was ineffective at the state level and non-existent at the national level
  • Reveals the extent of drug addiction and pleasure-seeking drug use as early as the 1770s and how Americans came to understand such use
  • Examines drug use among well-to-do white people who bought their drugs at drugstores
  • Examines the extent to which racism has shaped perceptions of drug addiction and the making of drug policy

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Kelly Gray is Associate Professor of History at Towson University.


"Habit Forming: Drug Addiction in America, 1776-1914 is a unique and unreservedly recommended addition to community and academic library History of Medicine/Addiction collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists." -- J. W. Buck, Midwest Book Review

"Most US drug histories begin with Richard Nixon. Elizabeth Kelly Gray boldly begins hers with Benjamin Franklin. She brings fresh, unusual sources to bear on a story that runs from the Revolution to the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act, from laudanum to heroin. Gray's big theme matches her scope. Her long nineteenth century of drug use hardened habits of drug-policing-skewed by users' race, class, nativity, and motives-as much as it hardened drug habits themselves." -- David Courtwright, author of The Age of Addiction

"Habit Forming presumes nothing about the way in which the world of 'legal' drugs functioned and instead asks new and interesting questions. It considers the ways in which drugs impacted the everyday life and experience—both exotic and mundane—of users and their families. Its broad sweep is not merely chronological but takes in a range of substances—from the familiar accounts of opium and cocaine to less-told accounts of hashish and peyote—and shows how Americans' complicated and contradictory dialogue about drugs was layered with assumptions about race, gender, and class. This work offers a foundation on which we can build a sense of what the drug war would later become and reminds us there is no single or inevitable way for society to respond to the problem of drugs." -- Joseph F. Spillane, author of Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States, 1884-1920

Table of Contents

    Note on Terminology
    Part I: Hidden Drug Use in America
    Chapter 1: American Use of Opiates, 1776-1842
    Chapter 2: American Drug Use Quietly Escalates, 1842-1867
    Chapter 3: The Vogue for Hashish, 1832-1884
    Part II: Learning from a World of Users
    Chapter 4: The Global Context, 1774-1862
    Chapter 5: Habitual Opiate Use in Great Britain, 1821-1877
    Chapter 6: The Drug Trade and Habitual Use in China, 1804-1881
    Part III: An Open Problem
    Chapter 7: American Opium Dens, 1850-1910
    Chapter 8: A Public Problem, 1867-1905
    Chapter 9: Federal Regulation Begins, 1875-1914
    Conclusion: The Hydra Emerges

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