‘Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’ by Johann Hari – a review

I first heard about Johann Hari, and his book, Chasing the Scream when watching Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher. On the program, Hari talked about the War on Drugs, and sought, in the limited time he had, to debunk with both factions on the left and right thought about drug addiction: essentially, drug addiction isn’t a moral failing, nor is it solely a chemical issue, it’s more environmental. He also went further, talking about a famous study done to a rat addicted to drugs, explaining that if rats are given the choice of drugs or a fulfilling life with other rats, then they would choose the later. Maher, a known opponent of the War on Drugs, impishly suggested then that people could take heroin and not be addicted, as long as their environment was ideal. Of course, this brought laughter from the audience, but then Hari pointed out that when people leave the hospital after surgery, they are often prescribed drugs that are essentially heroin in its pure form, and few will develop addictions.

All of this was intriguing, which is why I found Chasing the Scream such a fascinating book. Admittedly, I went into this book with my sympathies and bias in Hari’s favor, but even I have to admit that some of Hari’s findings stunned me. And though I’m also critical of the War on Drugs, I didn’t know much of its history, outside the Reagan Administrations’ championing of it, and I didn’t understand the extend of its ruinous effects on society.

To build his case, Hari lays down an historical context to the War on Drugs, going back to the racketeering days of Prohibition. And while there are no villains in this story, Harry J. Anslinger would inspire boos and hisses for his pioneering work in the criminalization and prohibition of drugs. He sought to restrict marijuana, tapping into racist fears of the 1930s, exploiting race panic, including the image of sexually predatory black male, who will rape and murder white women if high. One of his victims included jazz legend Billie Holliday, who suffered through years of drug addiction as well as grueling punishment from the government. Ruthless gangster Arnold Rothstein is also profiled to highlight the danger of drug prohibition and its creation of gang warfare.

Ansligner and Rothstein are relatively obscure figures and Holliday is a musical icon – neither comes to mind when thinking about the War on Drugs, which is what draws the reader in initially. But Hari doesn’t just focus on historical figures. Through countless interviews, he profiles a diverse group of individuals, all scarred somehow by the War on Drugs. Some of the tales are heartbreaking and poignant, as a few of his subjects die before the book’s publication. Some like Chino – a trans man who struggles through a disastrous childhood of abuse, rape, drug addiction, and gang violence, emerges as an activist for change and social justice – are inspirational.

Hari’s research highlights major holes in the War on Drugs – namely that the prohibition of drugs encourages addiction. For most readers, such a claim would feel counter intuitive. But his findings support much of what he’s suggesting: because drug prohibition creates an grossly inflated profit on the sale of drugs, unscrupulous, violent, and dangerous gangs try to control the trade. And because the justice system views drug addiction in a punitive manner, addicts are often severely punished, jailed, and often tortured in such ways that relapse or death seems inevitable  Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio and his infamous tent city is a particularly disturbing and ghoulish example of the abusive methods in which states and counties in this country deal with drug problems – Hari shares a story of a prisoner who is essentially cooked in a cage in the hot Arizona desert.

Though not a travelogue, Hari’s work takes him to different parts of the world where drug addiction is a problem, and he interviews a diverse group of people, each of whom is looking at the War on Drugs as a failed disaster. In Sweden and Portugal, he witnesses new laws that work toward decriminalization, and he goes to Vancouver and writes about an addict who mobilizes his peers into demanding rights and treatment from their government. These stories place human faces on the War on Drugs and highlight was a catastrophic failure it turned out to be.  And in Colorado and Washington, he talks to two activists, both working hard toward the legalization of marijuana, but both coming from vastly different ideological backgrounds. It’s the diversity of the subjects of the book – conservatives, liberals, activists, doctors, politicians that really emphasizes just how wide-reaching the problem of drug addiction is.

Though Hari claims that his book is targeted toward the moderates – those who don’t fall too far left or too far right, Chasing Screams is a hard sell for those who take a conservative view of drug addiction. Some will claim that Hari and his subjects favor a touchy-feely approach that is doomed to fail. Some also will claim that Hari is essentially arguing for government-sanctioned crack houses. But Hari acknowledges that this discussion is far more complex than merely, “drugs should be legal, full stop.” As someone whose life has been marked by addiction, Hari knows first hand its consequences, and as a devoted uncle to young children, he fears for his nephews’ and niece’s safety. As a result, he does an admirable job in sharing his own prejudices about drug addicts as well as his preconceived ideas of drug addiction. Even if Chasing the Scream feels a bit like the proverbial preaching to the choir, those sympathetic toward Hari’s cause should still read the book, because it does highlight many unknown, yet tragic consequences of the failed War on Drugs. In light of ongoing discussions of our cracked justice system – particularly in light of the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police – Chasing the Scream will be one of the most important books you’ll read.

Click here to buy Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs on amazon.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book, commentary, Nonfiction, politics, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s