Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to read a new book about the drug war by Johann Hari: “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure how well I’d do. I have a harder time getting into non-fiction books these days — I spend most of my time reading things online, and I’ve read so much about the war on drugs that it’s hard to get excited about reading a book about it.
But less than halfway through the first chapter, I couldn’t put it down – it’s an amazing read.
Johann has done something really phenomenal with this book, by combining compelling storytelling with the factual highlights of the abominable history of the war on drugs, plus an undeniable blueprint for replacing that war.
For drug policy experts like me, it’s a great read with some fascinating personal perspectives, while filling in a few historical knowledge gaps. Definitely a reading highlight.
But it will also really score with the average politically-aware reader who doesn’t know all that much about the drug war. I know that it’s often hard to reach this group, because there simply is so incredibly much to tell them about the drug war and the facts can be overwhelming. But here, in one book, they get good stories with all the info they need to become an informed advocate for reform. I plan on buying a few copies to give to friends to read.
Hari starts with the biggest villain of all â€” Harry Anslinger â€” by researching through all his diaries and files stored at Penn State University. I’ve known mostly about Anslinger’s war against marijuana, and now learned a few more things about what he did to get the war on drugs started in full force.
I was surprised to learn that doctors like Edward Williams were actually successfully using heroin maintenance approaches in the U.S. to treat addicts, until Anslinger shut them down, arresting thousands of doctors.
Most were charged massive fines, but some faced five years in prison for each and every prescription written. In many places, horrified juries refused to convict, because they could see the doctors were only treating the sick as best they could. But Anslinger’s crackdown continued with full force.
Harry wanted Edward Williams to be broken more than any other doctor, because he was widely respected and many people listened to him. “The moral effect of his conviction,” Anslinger wrote, “will most certainly result in greater circumspection.” […] “Anybody that came out with any academic work that could be critical of him, his Bureau, or his philosophy, had to go to prison,” Howard Diller, one of his agents, said later. “Or be beheaded.”
I also was not aware how involved Anslinger was in channeling the full might of the U.S. government in exporting our drug war to the rest of the world.
“Drug prohibition would work — but only if it was being done by everyone, all over the world. So he traveled to the United Nations with a set of instructions for humanity: Do what we have done. Wage war on drugs. Or else. Of all Harry’s acts, this was the most consequential for us today. […]
One of his key lieutenants, Charles Siragusa, boasted: “I found that a casual mention of the possibility of shutting off our foreign aid programs, dropped in the proper quarters, brought grudging permission for our operations almost immediately.” Later, leaders were threatened with being cut off from selling any of their countries’ goods to the United States.
Whenever any representative of another country tried to explain to him why these policies weren’t right for them, Anslinger snapped: “I’ve made up my mind — don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Johann Hari provides us, throughout the book, with incredible access to individual players in the drug war. For the history, in addition to Anslinger, his research provides detailed insights into:
- Billy Holiday, a jazz singer and drug user whose paths crossed with Anslinger’s, and
- Arnold Rothstein, who invented the modern drug gang, and was the first major figure in organized drug crime in the United States.
And as Hari moved us to the present and future, these personal stories came from actual extensive interviews with an amazing array of individuals, including:
- Chino Hardin, a drug dealer for years in Brooklyn, who started his business when he was 14 years old.
- Leigh Maddox, a state trooper who later turned away from the drug war.
- Rosalio Reta, a killer for the Zetas in Mexico, who resides in a prison in Texas.
- Marisela Escobedo, who refused to accept her daughter’s murder by drug traffickers, and led protests in Mexico, until she was assassinated in front of the government palace (interviews were with family and friends).
- Gabor MatÃ© and Bruce Alexander, who developed new ways of looking at addiction, while working with addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
- Bud Osborn, a poet and homeless addict who helped transform that area of Vancouver and bring about the notion of rights for addicts.
- Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland, who supported and promoted harm reduction approaches, including heroin clinics.
- JoÃ£o GoulÃ£o, who helped lead a revolution in drug policy in Portugal.
- JosÃ© Mujica, president of Uruguay, who brought marijuana legalization to his country.
… and we learn about the players in the very different legalization approaches in Washington and Colorado.
Good stories, compelling arguments, and powerful facts.
You can learn more at Chasing the Scream, which will have actual audio files of all the pertinent interviews. The book has also been thoroughly researched and fact-checked by the author and editors with 65 pages of notes and bibliography.
I’m not done talking about this book — not by a long shot. It’s got some very powerful material about addiction and how we treat human beings that should be starting points for a number of serious conversations. I’ve got a lot of corners turned down on my copy of the book that still need to be discussed.