Alibi V.24 No.19 • May 7-13, 2015 

Book Review

Just Say No to Prohibition

Johann Hari challenges a devastating 100-year experiment

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Bloomsbury USA
hardcover
nonfiction
$27

2015: Kicked out of an abusive home at the age of 14, you got ahold of heroin to numb the pain of reality. It's the best thing you ever felt in your life, the only peace you've ever had. Years later, you get caught dealing adulterated heroin to feed your own habit and now face second-degree felony charges as well as fines of up to $15,000 and 18 years in prison. You go through withdrawal alone in prison and receive no support or rehabilitation when you leave. Now you can't get a job, your PO is just waiting for you to relapse, and most of society sees you as vermin that deserves to die behind a dumpster, preferably before you spread HIV or Hep C to the children who pick up used needles at the park.

2035: A bell rings as students file into a state-of-the-art classroom built off the profits from the Schedule I & II Drug Tax. None of the kids are in gangs. Any with traumatic home lives are already receiving help as part of the government-funded Addiction Prevention Program that replaced that wildly outdated D.A.R.E. nonsense. A history teacher stands at the front of the room holding a copy of last night's required reading. “All right everyone. Today we're discussing Billie Holiday, racism, poverty and Senator McCarthy as the roots of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs, as well as its consequences for your parents before the end of The 100-Year Prohibition.”

From the ghettos of NYC and Juarez to the peaceful streets of Geneva, Switzerland, the world has become a battlefield. Millions of victims are piling up between the pages of history—a history that shows how manipulated and wrong our knowledge of drugs really is. Johann Hari's Chasing the Scream is a vast and probing look at the history of the War on Drugs—its “founding fathers,” its devastating results after almost a century, the science and psychology of addiction, the stories of addicts, gangsters and cops, and the countries and American states currently changing the script by decriminalizing and legalizing drugs. Hari travels through space and time, digging through forgotten archives and jet-setting from one continent to the next to discover the truth about the War on Drugs, and how it has thoroughly and cruelly shaped the modern world and the booming drug economy.

Hari displays an incredible talent for storytelling, bringing ghosts of history to life and respectfully humanizing the killers, victims and warriors scattered throughout the modern war-zone of prohibition. Through interviews with an ex-gangster activist, a Mexican mother in search of justice, a poetic Canadian addict, the ultra-liberal president of Uruguay and many more, he looks at the drug question from all sides to deliver balanced and extremely well-researched information. While Hari never tells you what to think, the evidence speaks for itself, spitting in the face of more than 100 years of misinformation, political bullying and media fear-mongering.

With the help of multiple scientists, sociologists, nurses and activists, Hari shows how “problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment” and that “addiction isn't a disease. Addiction is an adaptation. It's not you—it's the cage you live in.” Rather than the sinister “chemical hooks” that hijack your brain, childhood trauma, isolation and dislocation are actually the biggest factors in drug addiction. Therefore, because “addiction ... is a disease of loneliness,” it makes sense that it is through compassion, connection and support that addicts can best be aided—as opposed to the current model of humiliation, punishment and rejection.

There is so much to learn from this book, and it should be required reading for every government official who makes foreign policy decisions or drug laws. Though Portugal, Uruguay, Switzerland, Washington and Colorado have only taken the first steps, the end of the War on Drugs is coming—and with it a new era of rational logic, science and compassion.