Cover of the book White Market Drugs

As we debate decriminalizing drugs, it is easy to forget that with few exceptions drugs are already legal in the US: we call them "medicines" and they are used far more widely than most "street" drugs. It is easy to forget this because U.S. authorities have spent over a century building racialized distinctions between the privileged type of drug consumer called "patients," who get legal access to regulated products, and the stigmatized type of consumers called "abusers" (or "junkies" or "addicts," etc.) who buy unregulated products in prohibition markets. Yet most people use psychoactive drugs for broadly similar (and overlapping) reasons: to relieve suffering and pursue pleasure. If we take pharmaceutical white markets for what they are--an effort to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of psychoactive, potentially addictive substances--they offer an invaluable historical laboratory of alternatives to punitive prohibition as a way to govern some of our most desirable and dangerous products. 

White Market Drugs explores these historical experiments in drug policy through the stories of three major white market crises: morphine in the late 19th/early 20th century; barbiturates, amphetamine, and Quaalude in the mid 20th century; and opioids again in the 21st century. In response to these crises reformers sought to protect rather than punish drug consumers, and did so by regulating major market actors (such as drug companies, physicians, and pharmacists). They reduced drug harms without producing mass incarceration, and, I argue, we can do it again-- but only if we make good policy available for all drug consumers, not just the ones we call "patients."          BUY        EXCERPT

Image of an opium poppy in a 1920s advertisement for Roche's Pantopon.
Sensationalist 1950s pop media article about amphetamine with image of frenzied woman in a dress
Advertisement for "Craig's Heroin Compound"
Image of cowboy making money from drug sales, cover of pharma sales rep mag
barbiturate advertisement from 1920s with wealthy woman reclining in front of window
Demerol advertisement, with image of a man's face shattered like glass, from 1950s

“A fantastic book that tells the history of addictive pharmaceuticals in the United States since the late 19th century through the current ‘twin crises’ of opioid addiction and mass incarceration of racial minorities." Dominique Tobbell, author of Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences

"An indictment of the failures of the present but also a roadmap for reducing harm in the future: a must-read for all concerned with the human toll of America’s long and costly wars on drugs." Jeremy Greene, author of Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine

“Essential backstory for a string of Pharma-stoked drug crises. Reading Herzberg, you can see the prescription opioid addiction epidemic coming from a mile away. This book is a powerful prequel to the body of investigative reporting on what now seems like the worst scandal in US medical history.” David T. Courtwright, author of Dark Paradise and The Age of Addiction

Publishers Weekly's "Big Indie Books of Fall 2020"

“In the style of a classic work of alternative history, Herzberg’s White Markets reminds us that over the last 150 years, pharmaceutical boom and bust cycles have continually hit small towns and communities across America.” New Republic

"At the start of White Market Drugs, Herzberg laments that 'pharmaceutical opioids do not yet have their historian.' They do now. He has presented a careful and comprehensive chronicle spanning more than a century." Wall St. Journal


1950s pop media article about amphetamines, w/ image of kids partying
Author head shot

I am an Associate Professor of History at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) whose research is on the history of drugs, with a focus on the legal kind--addictive medicines. You can find my work in, among other places, American Quarterly, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the Washington PostAtlantic Monthly Online, and in a previous book, Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac (Johns Hopkins, 2009). I am also Coordinator of Addiction Studies at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and co-Editor of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

cover of book Happy Pills in America

Happy Pills in America is a cultural history of modern psychiatric drugs framed around the stories of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac--three of the best known and most widely used medicines in the postwar era.  Beginning with the emergence of a medical marketplace for psychoactive drugs in the postwar consumer culture, Happy Pills traces how "happy pills" became embroiled in Cold War gender battles and the explosive politics of the "war against drugs"--and how feminists brought the two issues together in a dramatic campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s. A final chapter examines how Prozac's boosters revived faith in wonder drugs by successfully joining consumerism and biological psychiatry to conjure visions of unbounded psychological free choice.



Whiteout: How Racial Capital Changed the Color of Heroin in America (University of California Press, forthcoming 2022). Helena Hansen, Jules Netherland, and David Herzberg. Argues that "technologies  of whiteness" have shaped the careers of all opioids, legal and illegal, over the course of the 20th century, harming communities of color made invisible in the sometimes unreflective whiteness of the “deaths of despair” paradigm.

Risk/Benefit: Histories from The Borderlands between Licit and Illicit Drugs. Co-edited volume with Nils Kessel and Joseph Gabriel. An effort to tell stories liberated from the framework of the medicine/drug divide.

Eukodal: A History of Oxycodone before OxyContin. With Nils Kessel, an article on the German-U.S. history of oxycodone.

Crisis or no crisis? With Marie Jauffret-Roustide, research and events comparing opioid policies and experiences in the U.S. and France.


  • David Herzberg, review of Michael Pollan, This Is Your Brain on Plants (Penguin, 2021); Washington Post, July 23, 2021

  • "Addictive Pharmaceuticals and the Forgotten Lessons of Drug Policy History," Tackling Substance Abuse: Improving Prevention and Treatment through Multi-Level CollaborationPublic Policy Exchange, August 18, 2021 (online)

  • "The Other Drug War: Addictive Pharmaceuticals and America's Hidden Drug Policy History," G.W. Corner Society for the History of Medicine, University of Rochester Medical Center, September 22, 2021

  • David Herzberg and Jeremy Greene, "Stuck in traffic? Conflicting regimes of global pharmaceutical governance," Diplomatic History, forthcoming 2021

  • Thomas Jefferson Fund, French American Cultural Exchange Foundation, “Crisis or not? Comparing opioids, addiction/overdose, and treatment in U.S. and France,” with Marie Jauffret-Roustide, 2019 *delayed to 2022

  • "Early U.S. drug regimes and medical and drug cultures," Oxford University Press Companion to Drug History (Paul Gootenberg, Ed.), forthcoming 2022