My review of Johann Hari’s ‘Chasing the Scream’…

This week I am reviewing Johann Hari’s remarkable non-fiction book, ‘Chasing the Scream’. I have been a fan of Hari’s for a long time, since he first worked for the Independent newspaper in fact, many years ago. His column was always excellent and an essential read for me and when he left that paper, under something of a cloud, I feared that he would leave journalism for good. Fortunately, he did not, instead spending the intervening years writing and researching this stunning non-fiction book about how pointless and futile the drugs war has been and will continue to be until it ends. Anyway, onto my review…

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Chasing the Scream starts with an account of the beginnings of the drugs war that few of us will be familiar with. The tale begins with the person who really started the whole thing and a name that few will have heard: Harry Anslinger. The actions of this man, as head of the nascent Federal Bureau of Narcotics, laid the basis of all that was to come. He also relentlessly hounded Billie Holiday until he caused her death, as Hari recounts in heartbreaking detail. From there we spend time with another notorious drug war name: Arnold Rothstein, the legendary booze-runner and gangster and learn of his contribution to everything that has followed. Then, having laid the groundwork, Hari moves onto the real victims of the drugs war: everyone who has, in some form or other, been forced to participate.

In the next part of the book, Hari visits and talks with people from all sides of the drug war from a former drug dealer undergoing gender reassignment surgery, to the man forcing people in Juarez to see the victims of this war, to a woman murdered for wanting to know what happened to her daughter in Mexico. All of this puts a human face on the cost of this fight and help to show both the reality and the futility of these policies, a fight that Hari shows has been forced upon the world by the US. It also demonstrates how little choice many of the people caught up in all of this violence had during the course of their lives.

Hari also deals with a great many myths that surround drug usage. He explains that the use of mind altering substances is common throughout the animal kingdom and not something unnatural. He demolishes the idea that the reason that most people use drugs is simply because they are addicted. They are not, they use because they enjoy doing so. But for others, it is more complicated and Hari relates the stories of some of their lives. Some use to escape trauma that has been inflicted upon them and we make matters worse by marginalising and criminalising them and making it harder for them to return to any sort of normal life. And for this small minority what is needed more than anything else is our understanding, our help and our compassion. But that is the last thing that they currently get, at least not in most countries.

Towards the end of the book, Hari visits Portugal and then Uruguay, two countries that offer an alternative approach. In Portugal they decriminalised drug use in 2003 and focus their efforts instead on helping addicts. In Uruguay they went one step further and legalised marijuana and both countries have seen remarkable progress and made significant strides since then. They have not descended into anarchy and chaos as some feared, and Hari actually found that neither country wants to go back to the way they were. Now, with the legalisation of this drug in several US states, it feels like things may finally be changing. I really hope they are.

Chasing the Scream is an incredible book that deserves to find as wide an audience as possible and one that will hopefully contribute to the discussion that ends the toxic culture surrounding drug use and criminalisation. This futile fight achieves nothing except hand the drugs trade to criminals and criminalise people who need our help more than our disgust. As with other non-fiction books that I have read and reviewed recently (particularly Paul Mason’s ‘Post-Capitalism’ and George Monbiot’s Captive State) it also offers hope for future that things can change. We have seen the signs that the US may be willing to consider a new approach and I hope this continues.

Personally, my opinion has swung back and forth on this issue. After reading Peter Hitchens ‘The War We Never Fought’ I briefly considered whether prohibition could actually work. Now I do not think that it ever can and that decriminalisation and possibly legalisation is the only way forward. We have had a long, destructive and expensive war that has failed and it is now time to try something new. And Hari is showing us the way. Bravo!

 

 

My debut novel, ‘Only an atheist can help God save the world’, is available now from all electronic retailers. Also check out my other “Rambling” blogs posts for articles on being an indie author, comics, politics, and reviews of books and movies! Also follow me on Twitter @onlyanatheist1. Cheers!

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I recently worked in retail. Here are my ‘ramblings’ on how it has changed…

This week, I’m ‘rambling’ about something a little different. For the past six months I have been working in retail, more specifically in a local supermarket, and for someone like me who has both a degree and PhD in Neuroscience, this was less than ideal. Between December 2014 and May 2016 I applied for hundreds of jobs and I attended 15 interviews, a soul-crushing experience, before I was finally offered a part-time position back in science. Living in the South-East of England is ridiculously expensive my wife and one salary was insufficient for my wife and I to make ends meet so during this period, I went to work in my local store to help us out financially. The job was your standard retail opportunity; boring and physical and tedious but my point is this: between the last time I worked in retail (during my undergraduate degree) and now, it is obvious that conditions have deteriorated by a significant amount and I was not at all surprised to see the news reports of horrendous conditions inside Sports Direct (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jun/07/sports-direct-agrees-back-pay-deal-with-hmrc-minimum-wage). Actually, I think the conditions that I worked in were not that bad but, given the downwards trend, they are likely to worsen.

So, the job was hard and physical and poorly paid, though actually a little better than minimum wage (or even Osborne’s derisory ‘living wage’ which is no such thing). I was already of the mindset that the minimum wage should now be £10 an hour and working here only reinforced that idea. I spent 7.5 hours each day on my feet, carrying heavy boxes, filling shelves and pulling around carts. I came home exhausted and I lost a considerable amount of weight during this time. I also gained a some muscle, an up-side, and increased my stamina which has helped me in my new job to cope with the travel to and from London. Yet I was only working 3-4 days a week and I find it hard to imagine how exhausted those who worked full-time must’ve been. Yet with the recent shift to part-time workers, full-time contracts are now much rarer and very few of my colleagues had this. Part-time contracts come with fewer benefits and paid days off and instead they offer you over-time to make up the difference if you need it. Fortunately, I did not.

It was immediately obvious that, since my last stint in retail, that conditions have considerably worsened and that the balance of power has squarely shifted in favour of the employer and the management. It used to be that if you worked a nine hour shift you earned three breaks: an unpaid one hour lunch break and two paid 15 minute breaks. These 15 minute breaks are now no longer paid. Additionally, workers lost the right to paid sick days, unless you are out of work for more than three days. I was unwell three times during my six months working there and each time I was genuinely sick. On two of these occasions I had to leave the store and come home to bed. I understand that a sizable portion of their work force is comprised of teenaged workers who are hard to motivate and who would abuse a system that allows them to get paid for days when they can claim they are sick (more often hung-over). But for me and those who needed the job and took it seriously, it was an insult. For anyone with a family who require days to care for them, it is truly horrendous. I also had to sit through a hilarious meeting with two managers to check that I was ‘OK’ and that they didn’t need to discipline me for my (insignificant) absences. Hmm.

My time in this job also made me wonder how these workers manage to make ends meet. With the crazy-high levels of rent required to get even a small apartment in the south-east of the country and all of the other expenses that life incurs like paying your energy bills, feeding your family, owning and running a car, and so forth, I wonder how they do it. And now that they lose pay due to genuine sickness this only adds to their problems. Tax credits and other assistance that a family can claim obviously help, but the current Tory government is doing what it can to take that money away from those who actually do work and genuinely need the support. All in the name of getting the ‘lazy English workers’ back to work.

Despite my grumblings, it wasn’t all bad. One of the things that I did enjoy during my time in the store was the people that I worked with. Most of them were warm, friendly people who were genuinely interested in getting to know me. Of course, there were also some arseholes (including a manager whose name I won’t mention) and some colleagues who went out of their way to be petty and pathetic but knowing that I hopefully wouldn’t be in this environment for the long-run certainly helped me to deal with matters like that. I genuinely enjoyed seeing my co-workers on a daily basis, chatting to them and since leaving I am missing their company. I’m also aware that my current position is only part-time and temporary (it is maternity leave cover) and so there is the possibility that I may end up back in a supermaket in the near future. God I hope not!

I was fortunate to have a way out of this situation and the day that I was offered my new job was a joyful one indeed. But for many of my former co-workers, this is it, this is their life. Short-term, unstable contracts that are poorly paid, do not provide sick pay, and where the next group of incoming workers are offered worse conditions than the current ones. With the impending EU referendum, and the promise from those on the Leave side to have a ‘bonfire of regulations’ should Britain vote to leave, I worry for their future. I’m concerned that, in addition to unpaid sick days, that our government may choose to scrap the right to paid holiday days, a definite upside to working in a position like this one, and that conditions will further deteriorate. Yet, without the return of strong unions, something that seems unlikely at this current time, I do not see matters improving anytime soon. I wonder at what point this government will decide they have taken enough from the poorest in our society and that these people need support, not punishment. Then I remember that it’s a Tory government and my heart sinks. Bring on the next general election and hopefully, a change. Retail workers really need it.

 

My debut novel, ‘Only an atheist can help God save the world’, is available now from all electronic retailers. Also check out my other “Rambling” blogs posts for articles on being an indie author, comics, politics, and reviews of books and movies! Also follow me on Twitter @onlyanatheist1. Cheers!

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