Bits of Books - Books by Title

Chasing The Scream

The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Johann Hari

(London Times)

JOHANN HARI is the award-winning Anglo-Swiss journalist whose career crashed in 2011 when it was discovered that he had been cannibalising other journalists' work by lifting quotes and using them as if they came from interviews he had ­conducted. Perhaps worse, he had also created a fake identity to besmirch other journalists' Wikipedia entries. Chasing the Scream is his attempted comeback, and has the skid marks of his crash all over it. The endnotes contain riders explaining that his publisher has independently verified statements. As proof of authenticity, Hari intends to post ­online audio recordings of the 400 quotes used in the book that were directly spoken to him.

Chasing the Scream indicts the drugs prohibition that America forced on the world despite abundant evidence that this regime was as counterproductive as alcohol prohibition. America's global anti-­narcotics movement, which was launched between 1909-14 and steadily intensified, tried to suppress all non-medical use of drugs. Prohibition turned licit, if dangerous medicines into the merchandise of the world's most lucrative and well-organised black market. It created magnificently enriching opportunities for entrepreneurs willing to operate outside the law.

Hari's earlier chapters are the least successful. He gives excitable pen-portraits, with dollops of adolescent indignation, of some lead players in America's war on drugs. His main villain is Harry J Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, Washington wheeler-dealer, paranoiac, racist, bully and intimidator of physicians who ­prescribed maintenance doses to junkies. Also prominent are the pioneer New York drug gangster of the 1920s, Arnold Rothstein, Anslinger's murderously angry agent George White and the heroin-dependent jazz singer Billie Holiday, who was raped at the age of 10, sent to reformatory when she complained to the police and hounded to death with systematic sadism by Anslinger's men.

Hari's stories are familiar from previous books on the drugs scene. Similarly, his interviews with ­present-day American drug users, gang members and the traumatised survivors of urban drug warfare contain few surprises. Overall, US drugs prohibition has proved costly and destructive ($41bn a year is wasted on arresting and imprisoning drug users and sellers). Zero tolerance means, in America, a liberal judge boasting: 'If it's a dope case, I won't even read the petition. A drug conviction in adolescence makes many people unemployable for life. He gives a hellish account of Tent City in the Arizona desert, the prohibitionists' version of Guantanamo Bay, which the local sheriff proudly calls his 'concentration camp'.

His chapters get fresher and his findings more compelling once he starts interviewing drug-policy reformers scattered from Uruguay to Vancouver, and from Portugal to New Zealand. His chapter on Portugal is the hinge of the book. It recounts how a physician called Joao Goulao has led a movement that has resulted in the decriminalisation of drug possession in Portugal. Whereas in America 90% of government funds spent on drugs policy are allotted to customs, police and prisons, with only 10% earmarked for prevention and treatment, the spending ratio is exactly opposite in Portugal. Since decriminalisation in 2001, ­heroin use in Portugal has halved, and there have been larger falls in problematic drug use. ­Robberies and street crimes by addicts needing money for a fix are over: users are given maintenance doses of methadone, or are recovering in treatment, and have no need to rob.

Hari relies on interesting interviews with Goulao, Joao Figueira (the chief of Lisbon's drugs squad) and others. The Portuguese have forsaken the crass Just Say No prevention programmes, beloved by Nancy Reagan and Daily Mail columnists, for more subtle and effective drugs education directed at pupils. In Hari's summary: 'Prohibition is based on externally preventing people from using drugs through fear and force; the Portuguese alternative is based on the belief that drugs aren't going away, so you need instead to give people the internal tools - the confidence, the knowledge, the support - to make the right decisions themselves.'

The decriminalisation of possession has measurable social benefits. A further step would be outright legalisation of drugs and their regulated supply under government auspices. This would wrest the distribution of drugs from armed criminals and render drug cartels as obsolete as speakeasies. Neighbourhoods would cease to be terrorised, murder rates would drop, overdoses and rates of HIV transmission would fall, millions of people would cease to be imprisoned and the targeting of black and Latino men would diminish. Proponents of legalisation, writes Hari, 'don't want a world where drug use becomes more exciting and revolutionary. They want a world where it becomes much more boring.' He quotes a policy wonk describing legalisation as 'a drama reduction programme, because all the excitement, the salaciousness, the sexiness of drugs is very much in their prohibition, not their regulation.'

Among other heroes in the book are President Jose Mujica of Uruguay and John Marks, a physician on Merseyside who 35 years ago expanded his maintenance prescriptions of heroin from a dozen registered addicts to more than 400. ­Liverpool police reported a 93% drop in theft and burglary in the area. The Reagan administration then pressurised the Thatcher government, which forcibly merged Marks's clinic with one run by Christian evangelicals who opposed prescriptions on principle. Marks had never had a drug death among his patients; now mortality rates shot up towards 20%. His ex-patients returned to thieving to support their needs. Closing Mark's clinic led to Merseyside's current inferno of drug dealers, gang killings and addiction.

Chasing the Scream contains unexpected statistics. Crack-users - if they survive - give up their habit. Hari reports recent findings that of people who have used crack, only 3% have used it in the last month; 45% of American teenagers living under drugs prohibition have tried cannabis, but only 21% of Dutch teenagers (living under regulated decriminalisation).

Hari presents his research as a personal journey and has confessional moments ('I still have days when I feel the urge to nuke my feelings with a well-aimed Exocet of chemicals'), and his name-dropping suggests that the book has been a recovery programme of self-esteem ('I am especially indebted to Elton John, David Furnish and Andrew Sullivan, the fairy godfathers of gays everywhere; Jemima Khan, Naomi Klein and Eve Ensler, the fairy godmothers of lefties everywhere'). Yet, although this can be an annoying, ­garbled, self-important book, there is good sense hidden in it, and some of the personal stories are inspiring.

More books on Drink and Drugs

(NY Times)

On July 9, 2001, the British newsweekly New Statesman published a column by a 22-year-old named Johann Hari titled 'Just You Wait Until I Grow Up.' It began with Hari's announcement that he'd celebrated his recent graduation from Cambridge University 'with a few tabs of Ecstasy and the odd line of coke.' After that casual boast, Hari argued that the legalization of narcotics was not only inevitable but would save lives, create a more just society and help rectify “the disengagement of young people from politics.'

Less than two years after that essay appeared, Hari was hired as a columnist for The Independent, and drugs and drug policy were subjects he returned to repeatedly as he ascended to the upper ranks of British political punditry. Around the time he won the prestigious Orwell Prize for political journalism, in 2008, Hari was also filing regular dispatches for The Huffington Post, making him one of the rare political writers with followers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Then, in the summer of 2011, it all came crashing down. First, Hari was caught inserting quotations into his interviews from his sources' books and their interviews with other journalists. Then, he was accused of inventing quotes in one of his award-­winning stories. Finally, he copped to using a pseudonym - 'David r from Meth Productions' - to lionize himself and trash his critics on Wikipedia.

In the three years since then, Hari has mostly stayed silent - but, as he makes clear when describing the international travel he undertook while working on 'Chasing the Scream,' he has not been idle. The genesis of this project, he explains early on, can be found in his personal experiences with drugs and drug addiction, including a relative's bottoming out on cocaine, an ex-boyfriend trading his heroin addiction for a crack habit, and Hari's own propensity for gobbling 'fistfuls of fat white narcolepsy pills' to help him write. 'I had been taught how to respond - by my government, and by my culture - when you find yourself in this situation,' he writes. 'It is with a war.' In an effort to find out where this war began, and to try to figure out when and how it will end, Hari embarks on a voyage of discovery that takes him across nine countries and 30,000 miles.

'Chasing the Scream' begins with mini-­profiles of three Americans Hari views as archetypes for the modern-day war on drugs: Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962; Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish gangster in New York City in the 1920s; and Billie Holiday, the transcendent jazz singer who died in 1959 in a hospital room that had recently been raided by Anslinger's agents. The conclusions Hari draws from these sections often feel forced: In the pages to come, law enforcement officers are invariably described as Anslinger's descendants, and murderous drug dealers are time and again compared to Rothstein. Still, Anslinger, Rothstein and Holiday serve as potent examples supporting Hari's central theses: that the racism exhibited in the war on drugs was a primary factor in its founding; that the world’s default approach to drug use and abuse was put in place without regard for evidence or logic; and that the people who profit most from drug criminalization are criminals.

Hari is on surer footing when he writes about current events, and the most powerful parts of the book are his vivid sketches of combatants in the drug trade. Hari's empathy and keen eye for detail bring a disparate group of characters to life, including a former drug dealer and gang leader from Brooklyn transitioning from living as a woman to living as a man, and a teenager in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who dresses up as an angel to highlight the savage butchery that has made that border city one of the most dangerous places on earth. It’s a testament to Hari's skill as a writer that the most discomposing portrayal is of Marcia Powell, a mentally ill drug addict whom he never had the chance to meet. On May 19, 2009, while in the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Powell was placed in an outdoor, uncovered cage in 106-degree heat. She remained there for more than four hours. Hari describes what happened next: 'After the guards finally called an ambulance, the paramedics tried to take her temperature. Their thermometers only go to 108 degrees; she was that hot, or hotter still. Her internal organs had cooked, as if in an oven. . . . The autopsy found that her body was badly burned. Her eyeballs were, it was later explained, 'as dry as parchment.'

The second half of 'Chasing the Scream' is largely made up of Hari's attempts to identify the causes of and most effective treatments for drug addiction. Unfortunately, his misunderstanding of some of the basic principles of scientific research - that anecdotes are not data; that a conclusion is not a fact - transforms what had been an affecting jeremiad into a partisan polemic.

The first tip-off that Hari might be in over his head comes when he describes how 'a small band of dissident scientists' had uncovered the answers he was looking for after working 'almost unnoticed, for several decades.' Hari starts with Gabor Mate, a Hungarian-born Canadian physician whose theories about how the roots of addiction (and lots of other things to boot) can almost always be found in childhood trauma are, in fact, quite well known. To support his portrayal of Mate as a fringe renegade, Hari acts as if a rigid, deterministic model of addiction as a purely physical disease is almost universally accepted; if anything, the opposite is true. Even more problematic is Hari's wholesale acceptance of Mate’s reductionistic approach when, in fact, there's a significant body of work demonstrating its shortcomings.

The next researcher to benefit from Hari's credulousness is Bruce Alexander, a Canadian psychologist who believes that drugs are not the cause of drug addiction. Alexander is best known for his 'Rat Park' experiments in the 1970s, which were designed to demonstrate that rats in stimulating, social environments would not become addicted to morphine while rats in cramped, metal cages would. Hari explains why Alexander's views have not been universally embraced by making the preposterous assertion that 'when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens ' the individual.'

A few pages later, Hari is talking to a Welsh psychiatrist named John Marks, who is a proponent of providing prescription narcotics to addicts. Hari supports Marks's claims by referring to 'research published in the Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh' but then buries in the notes the fact that it was Marks himself who was the author of that research. Sometimes, Hari's unquestioning acceptance of what these researchers say is unintentionally comical: At one point, he quotes Alexander explaining that drug addicts don't get clean because they would rather spend their time doing “exciting things like rob stores and hang around with hookers.”

When Hari was first caught pilfering from other journalists, he wrote that he was 'bemused' that anyone felt using quotes given to another reporter amounted to plagiarism. But the only way such a practice would be acceptable is if the reporting component of a journalist's job amounted to nothing more than stenography. By not looking at the research of Mate, Alexander and Marks through a critical lens, Hari makes it easier for critics to dismiss them outright. That is a shame: While each man pushes his conclusions to extremes unsupported by data, their underlying message - that harm reduction is the most rational and humane approach to drug use and abuse - is, in fact, backed by copious research. Hari might not be passing off other people's work as his own anymore, but he still seems to be looking for quick fixes.

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress