CHASING THE SCREAM: The first and last days of the war on drugs by Johann Hari

Chasing the screamChasing the Scream is an excellent book filled with fascinating facts and personal stories that will challenge your outlook and beliefs about drugs and how to solve the drug problem. It looks at drug users and addiction, and also the supply of drugs and how to end the drug wars that ravage so many communities.

This book is an absolute must-read. It’s not often that I say that. It’s a big statement, but I’m willing to stand by it. Chasing the Scream is a brilliant, powerful book that will turn your ideas about drug use and drug addiction upside down, and offer insights and solutions that you perhaps never thought were possible.

Johann Hari’s book focuses on the war on drugs that is occurring the world over, how western countries approach the drug problem, and their attitudes toward tackling that problem. The drug prohibition act started in America in 1914, but it was Harry Anslinger’s appointment as the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that changed it from a tiny agency on the verge of being abolished to a seething, raging machine that ferociously and relentlessly targeted drug users. Quite often Anslinger’s policies were founded on false pretences or fabricated information. Even though statistics and research revealed that drug prohibition was not working (just like alcohol prohibition didn’t work) and that allowing a moderated use of drugs was more effective, Anslinger buried this evidence in favour of promoting his own agenda, that of focusing his personal rage and disgust at drug users and channelling it through his governmental power. That has since escalated over the past 100 years to influence the anti-drug campaigns that are now standard in most governments, and along with it the attitude that drug users are low life losers who should be scorned, and pushed to the outer fringes of society.

Hari himself admits throughout the book to having a negative attitude toward drugs and drug users through both his own personal experiences – he’s had loved ones spiral out of control due to drug use – but also through government propaganda generated through the media that conditioned his ideas and attitudes from an early age, as it does most people, because it was backed up by science. No one questioned this information because after all how could the government and scientists be wrong?

What is admirable is that Hari is determined to face up to his predetermined ideas about drug use and consider other perspectives. His research is well balanced and he approaches his subject from opposing sides, attempting to get a clearer picture about drug addicts and why they constantly return to substance abuse, to understand what drives that addiction, and to find out what the best means of treating that addiction might be. This is not a dry, history text. The evidence that Hari uncovers is makes for fascinating, page-turning reading.

For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a study in 1995 into drug use, and the results showed that “experimental and occasional use are by far the most common types of use, and compulsive/dysfunctional [use] is far less common” (p148). The report was suppressed and never published because the US government threatened to cut WHO funding.

Around ten per cent of users are addicts, and yet is it this small minority that are the focus of the drug war. They are the focus of arrests, government campaigns warning against the impact of drug use, and symbolise the addict that is to be feared and reviled, as portrayed in various forms of media.

And yet, Hari writes

“… the overwhelming majority of people who use prohibited drugs do it because they get something good out of it – a fun night out dancing, the ability to meet a deadline, the chance to get a good night’s sleep, or insights into the part of the brain they couldn’t get on their own. For them it’s a positive experience, one that makes their lives better…” (p.148)

Hari talks to American writer Nick Gillespie who states:

“ ‘There is such a thing as responsible drug use, and it’s the norm not the exception.’ “ (p.148)

Hari looks closely at the marginalised ten per cent of drug users that are the prominent image projected as the reason for the fight against drugs. The peaking, freaked-out, out of control drug user squatting in abandoned buildings, roaming the street looking for their next score, rotting teeth and sores on their body, the junkie that will jump you in the dark.

What he discovers is that these people are damaged, that they have suffered severe traumas in their life, that they were damaged before they turned to drugs. They use drugs as a form of self-medication to escape the pain. He also discovers clinics where these people are treated as real people, shown kindness and compassion, given psychological treatment, offered education, and yes are allowed to still access their drug of choice in a safe, clean environment. The results are astonishing. The US government’s response to these clinics is also surprising, and the lengths that people will go to to suppress the truth is frightening.

I’m not going to include any more teasers. All I can say is that if you want to know about the incredible solutions that are available and yet not being applied to the war on drugs, then you want to read this book.

Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury Circus 2015) ISBN: 9781408857847

Website: Chasing the Scream

Facebook: Chasing the Scream


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