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…
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!
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