Chasing the Scream – book review


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 — Harry Anslinger — 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 Maté 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.
  • João Goulão, who helped lead a revolution in drug policy in Portugal.
  • José 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 highly recommend Chasing the Scream, which is available for preorder at, or through the Chasing the Scream website. (It’s available January 20th.)

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.

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15 Responses to Chasing the Scream – book review

  1. allan says:

    just watched the 60 Minutes segment on CO’s pot industry. 60 Minutes writers/reporters (and all MSM) need to read this.

  2. Ned says:

    Unfortunately this book’s author is burdened with some journalism integrity baggage. I have no opinion about that because I don’t know the facts. It appears however that the issue is going to affect how the book is received.

    For example this review in the Guardian (and the comments)

    No doubt that even without the baggage there would be valid criticisms to make, that’s a given. It will be a great shame however, if this is really a significant piece of work that excells in what it seeks to do, if that issue allows it to be summarily dismissed by those that need to learn from it the most.

    • Pete says:

      It’s true, and I’m sure that’s why Johann and the editors spent so much effort on comprehensive notes, and transparency with their sources, even to having actual recordings of the interviews, and having a place on the website for anyone to submit any items they think are incorrect.

      I’m hoping that critics will judge it properly and fairly. I think that particular review was relatively fair, but overly cautious with its praise.

  3. Duncan20903 says:


    I’m puzzled over why the enemies of freedom have kept this one on the shelf for so long. This one is from the “cannabis needs to remain criminalized or else the cartels will get into REAL mischief” category:

    Losing marijuana business, Mexican cartels push heroin and meth

    • primus says:

      Look at the charts of drug interceptions on the southwest border and you will see that cannabis still accounts for the vast majority of seizures; 2.25 metric tons of heroin, 15 m.t. of meth, 25 m.t. cocaine, vs. 1250 m.t. of cannabis. That is a factor of between 50 and 555. IOW cannabis is STILL at least 95% of the drugs coming in by weight.

      • Duncan20903 says:


        Now, now, it isn’t very nice to torment the poor dumb prohibitionists with facts or to confuse them with mathematics. Since when did reality make a difference to those “people”? Now say you’re sorry and offer to share your cracker jacks with them. From now on remember that not everyone is fortunate enough to be born with a working brain and that you need to be respectful to your inferiors.

        • primus says:

          No I don’t. Respect is earned. They who are unable to think, those who lie, cheat swindle and manipulate for evil ends have not earned respect. Not from me, not from anyone. It galls me that they get respect from many quarters, but I refuse to grant them their unearned, undeserved respect.

  4. Freeman says:

    Excellent find, Pete!

    I found the letter-exchange debate with Peter Hitchens fascinating. Prohibitionists seem to have such a hard time staying consistent in their arguments. For example, Hitchens harps on and on about drug use being self-inflicted “poisoning” which causes users to become “stupefied”, attributing the desire to use drugs to moral failure every time, then says “You overstate the importance of a small part of my book. My argument that intoxication is immoral is simply an attempt to explain the *moral* objections to drug taking, to those who think that morals are important”.

    Also, hyperbole seems to be an indispensable tool of prohibitionist rhetoric: “The utilitarian case against drug legalization is as strong as the moral one, unless you enjoy the sight of other people going needlessly mad.”

    Looking forward to reading and discussing this book!

  5. darkcycle says:

    Ordered. And I’m waiting by the mailbox as I type this….

  6. kaptinemo says:

    I recall reading an excerpt of a diary that may have belonged to Dr. William Woodward, one of the few voices of sanity in the 1937 hearings, in which he described a long-running feud with Anlsinger going as far back as 1930.

    I lost the link to the Webpage years ago, and am hoping that this book might shed some light on that aspect, for Anlsinger was known even back then for his thuggish modus operandi; every time I see this pic, I think it’s actually one of some Capone-era ‘wise guy’. He wanted his agency to have as much prestige as ol’ J. Edgar’s, and used J. Edgar’s methods. No wonder President Kennedy got rid of him.

  7. kaptinemo says:

    And if anyone needs a reminder of how much of an arsenloche ol’ Harry was, here’s some excerpts from the hearing that damned us all

    Ignorance, stupidity, prejudice and just plain meanness practically drip from the testimony. Voices of sanity drowned out in hate-filled roars. That in a nutshell encompasses the philosophical underpinning of all prohibitions: hate.

  8. SJ says:

    So glad to see you review this here. I stumbled across the authors name while looking through Coast To Coast AM’s upcoming shows list, but I had never heard of him before. Then the next day, I read your review. If anyone is interested, he’ll be on Coast To Coast on Wed the 14th with George Noory.

  9. Pingback: The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection « Drug WarRant

  10. keri biddle says:

    cant wait to read it.. what a cool book reveiw! 🙂

  11. Mandini says:

    Add me to the category who thinks Johann has redeemed himself with this work, and with all the audio up he can’t be accused of plagiarizing quotes. I hadn’t heard of him until recently so I had no prior judgement. I think what he did was definitely wrong, unprofessional and immature, but I don’t think it was sociopathic like Stephen Glass (the guy who completely fabricated entire stories, people, events, for years etc). He obviously took a hard look at himself and decided he still wanted to be a writer. This book is incredible and needed to be written. I hope it gets the audience it deserves… it would be perfect for a feature on the Daily Show.

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