Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
President Nixon first used the phrase “War On Drugs” in 1971, but Harry J. Anslinger, founding director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used war metaphors in the 1930s. The Harrison Act, which banned formerly legal tinctures of coca and opium, passed in 1914, and under American pressure, other governments passed similar blanket drug bans. Yet somehow, drugs and their attendant problems persist. Drugs underwrite Mexico’s ongoing civil violence, and undergird American poverty. What gives?
Anglo-Swiss journalist Johann Hari, who has witnessed drug addiction in his family and admits struggling with amphetamine abuse himself, unpacks the global drug war, a quest that carries him from the Vancouver to Juárez to Liverpool, and from Great Depression to the Great Recession. The facts he uncovers challenge top-level sacred cows. Many common assumptions, from drugs themselves to addicts’ motivations, come under fire, daring readers, regardless of their politics, to evaluate their prior prejudices.
From its foundations, the drug war has reflected its generals’ values above science. Anslinger believed addicts so subhuman that any legal overreach was acceptable to squelch them. He made exceptions, though: Anslinger made destroying Billie Holiday his personal mission, but gave Judy Garland a free pass. Anslinger’s prohibitionist tendencies, and sense of moral mission, created entire new classes of criminals. He also empowered the Mafia by channeling control of world drug trafficking into organized crime.
Why do drugs remain immune to police pressure? Interviewing law enforcement professionals, Hari shows that drugs don’t behave like other crimes. Where rounding up burglars reduces burglary stats, rounding up drug traffickers has little visible impact. Drugs have economic drivers most other major crimes lack, meaning when cops bust one pusher, somebody somewhere is hungry enough to fill the gap. Many police have become disillusioned, and begun pressuring for new approaches. (See also Howard Rahtz.)
This economic momentum also changes how we address addicts. Our current approach treats all drug users equally, squeezing them into marginal status. Anyone with a drug record is unilaterally excluded from government jobs, student loans, public assistance, and other hands up. This means convicted users, turned loose again, has few opportunities to earn a living, except to resume their former drug war roles. The drug war thus becomes a self-sealing argument, destined never to change.
And who, exactly, are these addicts? Anti-drug programs like DARE, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, have been driven by Harry Anslinger’s moral impetus, but recent science calls common rhetoric into question. Researchers Hari interviews, like Gabor Maté and Bruce Alexander, have studied addicts as they actually are. They’ve made some remarkable discoveries, not least of which is: addicts have plenty in common before they ever discover drugs. Maybe if we treated underlying needs…?
Change is certainly possible. The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, saw an organized movement by local addicts that changed how the city treated its poorest citizens. Since then, Vancouver addicts’ life expectancies have expanded by ten years. The states of Colorado and Washington both famously legalized recreational marijuana, though for very different reasons outsiders probably missed. Entire countries, like Portugal and Switzerland, changed their addict treatment programs, and violence, disease, and overdose death all plunged.
For Hari, this isn’t merely academic. He bookends his journalism with personal narratives of loved ones who’ve descended into addiction, and how his researches have forced him to change how he treats them. Hari also briefly alludes to his own struggle with amphetamines as a binge-writing tool. He neglects to mention that his amphetamine abuse submarined his British journalism career. This book represents Hari’s efforts to confront the damage he’s done, and reclaim his integrity.
This book represents cause-oriented journalism, in the best way. Hari begins with a simple premise, that what we’re doing now doesn’t work, and another way must exist. He doesn’t start with simplistic alternatives in mind, and admits struggling with the conclusions his sources imply, because they contradict everything we think we know about drugs. But even if we cannot accept everything he discovers, Hari nevertheless gives us reason to hope today’s failed approaches can change.