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Chasing the Scream: The book to end the drug war

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
400 pages
Bloomsbury, 2015

This is a remarkable book. If it were widely read and heeded, the drug war would end tomorrow. Maybe yesterday.

As its subtitle says, it covers the global war on some drugs, from its birth in the mind of Harry Anslinger to the latest hopeful trends in decriminalization and legalization.

But this is no dry compendium of facts. Not even a non-dry compendium. Johann Hari is a gifted storyteller and he’s hit upon the method of building each chapter around individuals. The facts and statistics are there, but they’re interwoven with heartrending (sometimes maddening) personal stories, each one illuminating a different catastrophic aspect of the drug war.

He tells the stories of a young Zeta hitman and a mother from deadly Cuidad Juarez seeking justice for her Zeta-murdered daughter. We read about a heroin addict who led a rebellion to change the lives of addicts in Vancouver, BC, and a doctor and a nurse who were part of the change. We read about a street-level dealer in New York and the gutsy leaders of two countries (one a revolutionary liberal, one a staunch conservative) who ended the wars in their lands. We see addicts and those affected by them (Hari himself has addicted relatives and friends), and we see how the war harms even those who’ve never touched anything stronger than caffeine.


We begin by learning about the three people Hari “credits” as the founding fathers and mother of the drug war. One is Anslinger, of course. He comes across as more evil than we knew. Hari avoids terms like “evil,” so let’s just say Anslinger’s machinations were more far-reaching than even most students of history realize and his maniacal obsession against recreational chemicals influences everyone from the United Nations on down, even today.

You’ll be surprised to learn who the other two “founders” are, but it all makes sense as Hari tells it.

He conducted prodigious original research, traveling the world from Switzerland to Uruguay, and of course to Mexico and throughout the U.S., where it all began and where the war is still headquartered. He also dug deeply into books, studies, censored reports, and neglected papers (especially Anslinger’s).

I’d fault him on only one thing. While everything he writes is documented in a thick sheaf of end notes, I occasionally had the feeling that he should have taken some other author’s claim with a spoonful of salt. For instance, early on he has singer (and addict) Billie Holiday going out with a young friend and feeding LSD to carriage horses in a park. He conscientiously documents the source for the claim. But given that Holiday died in 1959 and LSD didn’t become part of the street-drug scene for several years after that, I seriously doubt it. In the same chapter, though, he mentions a truly foul government agent of the period secretly dosing women with LSD — a claim that’s credible, since the agent was involved with the notorious MK-ULTRA program. And his account of Holiday’s death — at Anslinger’s will — is as well-documented as it is horrific.

Once in a while, too, Hari (a Brit with joint Swiss citizenship) will goof on a bit of American terminology. But these are minor, minor slipups in a seriously important book. He’s also politically to the left of us all — a fact that will annoy the heck out of some of you, but which is good because his work can’t be dismissed as libertarian wing-nuttery. And his political views mostly only show toward the end of the book, where he’s delivering the hopeful news about real-world policy changes to end the war.

Bottom line: When Hari is done, the drug war is dissected and indefensible. And solutions seem obvious, even though most of them are non-intuitive to generations raised in witch-hunting terror of drugs.

We’ve probably all read powerful anti-drug war writings. Mike Grey’s Drug Crazy: How We Got into This Mess and How We Can Get Out comes to mind, as do the works of Peter McWilliams, himself a tragic victim of the war on cannabis. But this latest may just be the greatest. I wish every politician, bureaucrat, enforcer, and influencer behind the war on some drugs would read this book from introduction to end notes.


  1. Sawbuck57
    Sawbuck57 September 24, 2015 4:32 am

    Truly one of the best books I have read in years. I gifted copies to friends in order to get it more widely known with a request when they finished it to pay it forward. It is a whole host of reasons to end the war on drugs and the money flow that feeds both sides.

  2. Bill St. Clair
    Bill St. Clair September 24, 2015 4:54 am

    Got the free Kindle sample. Look forward to reading it. WIll probably buy the whole thing.

    Peter McWilliams used to provide all his books online for free, but since his death, whoever is maintaining his web site has taken them down. I still have a mirror of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do.”

  3. Jim B.
    Jim B. September 24, 2015 8:53 am

    Unfortunately, even if those in power do read this book, it won’t matter. They and their cronies are just making way too much money and power to let the Drug War end. The only wonder that’s left will be getting people to know what’s the book about. Then getting people to act on changing the government.

    The real point is seeing what the government “decides” to do. Do what the people want? Or tell them to go to hell?

  4. Graystone
    Graystone September 24, 2015 10:09 am

    Haven’t read the book, but Jim B. touched on why we’ll always have drugs. Just too many vested interests to legalize drugs or work out viable solutions. Imagine half as many people in prisons, half as many judges, probation officers, correctional workers, cops, criminal lawyers, etc. Nope. Ain’t never gonna happen.

  5. Claire
    Claire September 24, 2015 11:43 am

    Thanks for keeping that good book free and alive, Bill.

    For those who don’t know, here’s what the fedgov did to McWilliams:

    And for those of you who say the drug war will never end … while it’s true that the prison-industrial complex, forfeiture-fueled police forces, and lots of other self-interested drug warriors will do all they can to keep the carnage going … look how much has changed in just 15 years. What the fedgov did to McWilliams would be unthinkable now.

    Change may be forced on unwilling politicians and enforcers, and dozens of countries and states may have to stand in defiance of U.S. law and policy first. But change is coming.

    I really suggest you pessimists and cynics read Hari’s book. Sawbuck’s right about how compelling it is.

  6. Jim B.
    Jim B. September 24, 2015 8:25 pm

    I didn’t say change can’t happen. It’s just that any change that does happen will happen in spite of at least the Federal Government. You’ll have better luck changing the spots on a pissed off leopard than working with the government for positive changes.

    i also didn’t say the drug war won’t end. It’d end with the government kicking and screaming about it.

  7. Graystone
    Graystone September 24, 2015 9:38 pm

    It ain’t just the Feds standing in the way of change. Crime is big business for both the good guys and the bad guys, and drugs are at the top of the profit list. As the old saying goes; “Just follow the money.”

  8. Socrates Wilde
    Socrates Wilde September 24, 2015 10:09 pm

    Bessie Smith died in 1937. Is she being confused with Billie Holliday? FYI: Cary Grant and others experimented with LSD in the 50s, long before it became a street drug in the 60s

  9. Claire
    Claire September 25, 2015 4:57 am

    Socrates — MY BIG ERROR! Yes, I should have written Holiday, not Smith. Will fix ASAP. Brain fart.

    And I do know that some notable people experimented with LSD before it became a street drug, but wasn’t it usually under controlled circumstances, in universities and so on? I suppose it’s possible that Holiday could have gotten LSD to give to horses. I still doubt the account, though.

  10. Claire
    Claire September 25, 2015 5:14 am

    “i also didn’t say the drug war won’t end. It’d end with the government kicking and screaming about it.”

    Oh, that’s certainly true. But I also hope you didn’t think I meant I expected change to be initiated from the top down. I’d like to see politicians and LEOs be forced to face the facts in this book so they’ll know their game is up (and maybe prick their consciences). But of course any real change will be forced upon them — whether through things like the initiatives that are ending the war on cannabis or through other cultural or economic groundswells.

  11. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 25, 2015 8:18 am

    One way to start is to push your local and state governments to decriminalize possession of reasonable amounts. If the laws have to be enforced, then make it a nuisance ticket etc. Maybe work on banning smoking it in public. One can also use data that should be coming from the medical users and the few recreational use states to illustrate that it’s use does not cause crime in and of itself. Much the same way that guns do not cause crime.

    At the state level work to elect and support politicians that are against the private prisons. Prisons (horrible thought as they may be) should only be run by the state directly. Make private prisons illegal and then argue that legalizing pot will reduce prison populations and save money for the state. You have to show politicians what is in it for them. They have to see how it will get them votes, support, smiley pictures in the capital etc. Sometimes ego is a heavier motivator than purely money.

    Final approach could be just wait things out. When the economy finally crashes, the EMP hits and/or global warming reduces everything to dried out husks or ice crystals, then they system will collapse on its own eliminating government and prisons.

  12. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau September 25, 2015 9:47 am

    Jim B. is right. The drug war does not have to make sense to the peons. It only has to make sense to the ruling class – which it still does, although it is getting a little shaky lately.

    [ I’d like to see politicians and LEOs be forced to face the facts in this book so they’ll know their game is up]

    If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride?

    Maybe SWATTING politicians will come in style…

    [At the state level work to elect and support politicians that are against the private prisons. Prisons (horrible thought as they may be) should only be run by the state directly. Make private prisons illegal and then argue that legalizing pot will reduce prison populations and save money for the state.]

    How the heck would that help? You think government prison administrators and the criminal “Justice System” do not face incentives hostile to us?

    Yes, just waiting it out is the ticket. Revolution washes away all this crap. In the meantime, if anyone tries to arrest you or yours for this crap, go to war.

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