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Social Poison

, 248 pages
January 2012



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Social Poison

The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821–1926

This comparative history examines the divergent paths taken by Britain and France in managing opiate abuse during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Though the governments of both nations viewed rising levels of opiate use as a problem, Britain and France took opposite courses of action in addressing the issue. The British sanctioned maintenance treatment for addiction, while the French authorities did not hesitate to take legal action against addicts and the doctors who prescribed drugs to them. Drawing on primary documents, Howard Padwa examines the factors that led to these disparate approaches. He finds that national policies were influenced by shifts in the composition of drug-using populations of the two countries and a marked divergence in British and French conceptions of citizenship.

Beyond shared concerns about public health and morality, Britain and France had different understandings of the threat that opiate abuse posed to their respective communities. Padwa traces the evolution of thinking on the matter in both countries, explaining why Britain took a less adversarial approach to domestic opiate abuse despite the productivity-sapping powers of this social poison, and why the relatively libertine French chose to attack opiate abuse. In the process, Padwa reveals the confluence of changes in medical knowledge, culture, politics, and drug-user demographics throughout the period, a convergence of forces that at once highlighted the issue and transformed it from one of individual health into a societal concern.

An insightful look at the development of drug discourses in the nineteenth century and drug policy in the twentieth century, Social Poison will appeal to scholars and students in public health and the history of medicine.

Howard Padwa is a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs and the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society.

"Well written and readable, thought-provoking and well researched."

"In contrast to other western nations, Britain treated narcotic addicts liberally for most of the twentieth century. Howard Padwa explains this famous anomaly by comparing the evolution of French and British policies. His insight is original and compelling: national self-perception is the key to national drug control."

"Padwa's comparative approach is a smart one, and he effectively shows the ways in which multiple influences, including social and cultural ones, can shape drug policy for decades or longer."

"An engaging and well-written book... Drawing on literature and archival material from both sides of the English Channel, Social Poison offers a comparative perspective that has often been missing from the existing historiography of illicit drugs."

"More comparative studies of this type would be very useful for historical scholarship about the opiates. Such accounts promise to be much more informative than the more usual advocacy-infused use of historical comparisons that have often been a feature of the popular drug policy literature."

"This book will be of interest to anyone involved in the treatment of addiction."

"This book is an excellent example of the value of fine-grained comparative study and a welcome addition to the growing body of work on drugs and addiction... Addiction continues to be a key social issue, and Social Poison is a persuasive reminder of the need for contemporary policymakers to take the long view and for historians actively to assist them in this enterprise."

"Howard Padwa's Social Poison is a useful addition to existing work on the topic."

"Elegantly written and thoughtfully arranged."

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