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