Books

An ill-waged war against the war on drugs

A review of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream finds there are still no clear answers over the benefits of prohibition or legalisation

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

17 January 2015

9:00 AM

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs Johann Hari

Bloomsbury, pp.390, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408857830

Since drugs became popular, there have been countless books on what to do with them. The most interesting are those of a creative kind by high-profile writers: De Quincey, Baudelaire, Aldous Huxley, Henri Michaux, William Burroughs, Carlos Castaneda. The most useful, so far as social policy is concerned, are those by low-profile operators in the field: scientists, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, police.

The least interesting or useful prove to have been the polemical books in neither category, so I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of this one, written by a political journalist, and hyped by Elton John, Noam Chomsky, Stephen Fry and Naomi Klein. My unease was aroused, but not because Johann Hari is of the left — I’d be equally suspicious of a book on drugs by Paul Johnson endorsed by Cliff Richard and the Vatican.

My generation in the 1960s used drugs in pursuit of pleasure, adventure and escape from cultural inhibition. There were casualties, of course, but they did not define the phenomenon. Hari’s focus, however, is on the negative aspects of prohibitions against marijuana, heroin and cocaine/crack. His main target is Washington’s anti-drug policy, initiated in 1914, and its adoption by other western nations, for which he blames the global spread of addiction and criminal violence, especially among the poor. But the policy is not American; it became a UN convention in 1961, updated in 1988.

I was confused by his lumping together issues surrounding hard and soft drugs, and decriminalisation or legalisation (not the same). But he is right about some bogus myths of addiction. Addiction is not a sudden hijack, it has to be organised; and addictions are not uniformly strong. Opium is an obvious example. The decline of the relatively harmless opium den has seen a rise in addiction to opium’s hard derivatives, heroin and morphine.


Hari claims that Washington banned opium because it hated the Chinese, but he has not addressed the historic shift in the past 100 years from vegetable drugs to refined chemicals. This is paralleled by the rise of junk food (which many believe should be prohibited or controlled). He also claims that the medical use of drugs does not create addicts — which is nonsense. When argument fails he can veer into vapidity: ‘How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid?’ Is he blaming Washington for the human condition?

My unease increased when Hari writes that the hounding of Billie Holiday and the compassion shown towards Judy Garland were evidence of racism in drug policy — but Judy Garland was not using heroin and mixing with the criminal underworld. He says that US prohibition enforcers kept ‘targeting the weak’, meaning the blacks and Hispanics; but it was the drug dealers who targeted them first, and there is a good argument for seeing the US government as trying to protect the weak.

One of this book’s arch villains is Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Hari writes: ‘The Mafia paid Harry Anslinger to launch his crusade because they wanted the drug market all to themselves.’ Seven pages later we read: ‘There is no evidence that Anslinger ever worked for the Mafia . . .’ Is this a retraction or what? The book abounds in histrionic accusation and false logic.

Hari also blames Washington for the horrific battles between drug gangs in Latin America and the Caribbean. But non-prohibition is no guarantee of peace and harmony. Look at the merciless gang wars in central Africa over precious stones and metals. And prohibition can be a vital tool: against illegal logging in the Amazon for example, or the slaughter of elephants.

He says the war against drugs has been going on for a century and is still not won, so it’s been pointless. Some wars are eternal and to expect otherwise is utopianism — the war against weeds, for example, which is called gardening. The war on drugs can be called public health. One of Hari’s own informers raises this: ‘We need to approach drug addiction not as a criminal justice situation but as a public health situation.’

That indeed is how it is regarded. Criminal prohibition was never considered enough in itself, even to the most rigorous Washington hardliner. It should be noted that liberalisation has already begun in some US states and that the world’s harshest anti-drug laws — by far — are in Muslim and Asian countries, which Hari ignores.

The debate has become more urgent since illegal drug money has started to fund political and religious terrorism. But one needs to be careful about following Hari’s advice in allowing freer circulation of hard drugs in society. Yes, this would reduce enormous enforcement costs — and if extended to legalisation of supply, would bring in huge taxes and abolish the drug gangs. But what of the general population? A lot of drug abuse is related to opportunity, which prohibition is designed to limit. So decriminalisation, or more legalisation, would increase drug use — but perhaps make it less socially convulsive? Worth considering — and my first thought is that we are a species suffering an epidemic of lethal obesity because millions can’t control even a biscuit habit.

In his favour Hari cites the decriminalisation of drug users (as opposed to dealers) in Portugal in 2001, and his entire book is embodied in one triumphant statement: ‘In the years in which heroin was decriminalised in Portugal, its use has been halved there — while in the United States, where the drug war continues, it has doubled.’ But examination of the figures including those from Italy and the Netherlands, which began decriminalisation before Portugal, prove to be far less decisive. Also in the same period, crack cocaine use has declined dramatically in the USA — and nobody is sure why. Current thinking at the WHO is for decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use, but not for legalisation.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • flux5000

    The UN is run by America. Your article appears to back the organised criminal element, are you receiving funds from gangs by any chance?

    Fact is the world needs drug regulation, to argue against that is to argue in favour of the criminals.

    • The UN is run by America
      And what are you smoking? (Injecting, whatever.)

      • Mike Samuibungy

        The U.N is controlled by America. It contributes the most funds, sets the agenda and voting habits through informal means and uses its veto to block anything it does not like (as do everyone else) but, it also uses its ‘soft power’ on other veto carrying states to vote in accordance with them. The author makes a few good points but most of it is really odd and pedantic. As someone who has studied this exact topic for my University dissertation I can say that the drug prohibition regime is caused by many things but America’s role is primary… its moralistic crusade against certain drugs is the reason why we have the global ban on substance taking… the reason it happened was the huge rise of the U.S in the last century.. the drug prohibition regime was just one thing… the economic system was another. Institutional factors like the CBN budget (Anslinger) and the U.S dominance of the U.N are other factors.

      • flux5000

        Nothing as strong compared to what you are obviously smoking…

  • Andrew Macpherson

    “are you receiving funds from gangs by any chance?”

    Are you smoking too much weed?

    Perhaps an idea would be to legalise opium instead of heroin, or coca instead of cocaine… Ugh, to hell with it, just legalise it all! Tonight!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Legalize the lot. Take a bite out of organized crime and cull the weak-minded loser parasites. What’s not to like?

  • zugzwang

    Curious that this subject should be chosen by Hari for his rehab project. His grasp of logic doesn’t seem to have improved.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    …And prohibition can be a vital tool: against illegal logging in the Amazon for example, or the slaughter of elephants…

    Actually, it doesn’t work very well for elephants (or rhinos, with their horns). Prohibit the trade, and the locals have very little interest in keeping elephants or rhinos alive. Far better to farm the animals – then, like chickens, they are likely to expand…

  • trace9

    From Noto to how-not-to – Maybe..

  • Paul Wonnacott

    free bottle of drugs if you buy a sub for the mag, the champagne, it is a mood altering addictive chemical, just happens to be a legal liquid form
    By the fact that one or more drugs are deemed socially acceptable while others not, has always by it’s illogicality harmed the prohibitionist cause,

    • Paul baby: how about considering just why some ‘drugs’ are ‘deemed’ socially acceptable while others are not? Hmmm?

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  • My first thought was: this guy’s a dolt. And my conclusion is: this guy’s a dolt. The reviewer, I mean.

    Apart from my other criticisms, which I won’t bother to name, as drugs are really a tedious subject for anyone with a bit of intelligence, is that obesity has virtually nothing to do with self-control as normally understood, and everything to do with factory-processed carbohydrates and with hormones (insulin, ghrelin, and leptin, to name a few). Why doesn’t the dolt do some up-to-date reading on the subject?

  • Will Tregoning

    There might be an interesting point here… but what on earth is it? “Hari claims that Washington banned opium because it hated the Chinese, but he has not addressed the historic shift in the past 100 years from vegetable drugs to refined chemicals. This is paralleled by the rise of junk food (which many believe should be prohibited or controlled).”

  • Will Tregoning

    “He says that US prohibition enforcers kept ‘targeting the weak’, meaning the blacks and Hispanics; but it was the drug dealers who targeted them first” – that’s a valid point

    “and there is a good argument for seeing the US government as trying to protect the weak” – but this one is somewhere between tenuous and laughable

  • Will Tregoning

    “But non-prohibition is no guarantee of peace and harmony. Look at the merciless gang wars in central Africa over precious stones and metals.” This is an example from the margins. The ‘gang wars’ in central Africa take place in failed states. Conversely, there are countless examples of ‘non-prohibition’ in functioning states where trade is peaceful. In fact, this is the norm.

  • Will Tregoning

    “A lot of drug abuse is related to opportunity, which prohibition is designed to limit. So decriminalisation, or more legalisation, would increase drug use.” This is a fallacy – there is no conclusive evidence that decriminalisation would increase drug use.

    • Legitimizing anything tends to drive it up.

      • Will Tregoning

        Help me out with some examples.

        I’m also curious about what we are to make of the fact that illicit drug use increased massively since prohibition.

        • ‘Since prohibition’: illicit drug use has always been illicit. God you lot are sophists!

          • Will Tregoning

            Ok I’ll rephrase for you. What are we to make of the fact that drugs that were outlawed became much more popular?

            Also, I’m still keen for those examples of how ‘legitimizing anything tends to drive it up’.

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