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

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STONE MATTRESS by Margaret Atwood

StoneMatttressThis collection of short stories is surprising, eclectic and presents the unexpected perspective from that of an older generation who are by no means dull or boring. Quite the opposite in fact. Atwood’s characters are sharp, witty, conniving, menacing and manipulative. She portrays the human condition in excellent form.

What struck me most about these short stories and their female main characters is that older women are not to be trifled with. They are strong and feisty despite their age and the physical afflictions that betray their bodies. The women also show moments of vulnerability, remorse and courage. The stories often end not with a resolution, but with thick tension hanging in the air, leaving me wondering what would happen next to the characters.

It’s at this point that I confess that this is the first Margaret Atwood book that I have ever read. Collective gasps. Yes, yes, I know that this is a flaw on my behalf. Now that I have experienced her admirable writing style and the wit and creativity with which she writes, I am determined to read more of her works. The Handmaid’s Tale is on my reading list for this year – another classic that I have not yet gotten around to reading.

Atwood explore themes of genre and popular fiction in her short stories. In The Dead Hand Loves You Jack desires literary genius but instead writes a trash horror novel to pay the rent, and win a bet that he can get published, which results in a low-brow fan base and movie deals but not the literary success he was chasing. In Alphinland, aging widower Constance reflects upon her youthful affair with poet Gavin, who goes on to literary acclaim while scorning Constance’s writing. Constance, meanwhile had sustained her life, and those of the men in her life, through writing Alphinland, a sci-fi fantasy fictional universe that attracts a cult following that lasts several decades.

Margaret Atwood’s ‘tales’ are intended to “evoke the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales”, and several of her tales are about tales. She’s not telling which ones, leaving the investigating to the reader.

This collection of tales is sharp, witty and half the fun for me was waiting to see what direction Atwood would take the story and its characters, and the other half was in not knowing the ending. A great way to get me involved with the story and tempt me fill in the blanks.

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury Publishing 2014)               eISBN: 978 1408857175

A COOK’S TOUR by Anthony Bourdain

A_Cooks_Tour_bookI first read A Cook’s Tour over a decade ago and since then it’s been languishing in my bookcase. Headed overseas on a 6-week trip through Vietnam, I dusted it off and threw it into my backpack certain that Bourdain would make the perfect travel companion.

I confess that I do have an affinity for Bourdain’s work. I read his first book, Kitchen Confidential, when I was working in the hospitality industry, and his brash personality, his wry sense of humour and his open honesty are all evident as much in his writing as they are in his television shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and the later Parts Unknown.

A Cook’s Tour focuses on Bourdain’s search around the globe for the perfect meal, which is not defined by the most expensive restaurant, Michelan stars, sophistication or organic ingredients but rather composed of more elusive elements of romantic notions, context and memory all merging to create the atmosphere that accompany a good meal, leading to a sense of perfection.

Bourdain travels the world from places like Cambodia and Vietnam, on to Morocco, Russia, the UK and Mexico eating his way through a smorgasbord of good, bad and hair-raising food experiences. This was back in the early 2000s, and some of the places he visits are remote and still very much emerging countries – Cambodia is a haven for thrill seekers into drugs and bad behaviour along with encounters with the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam carries the ubiquitous romanticised imagery of beautiful women wearing the Ao Dai and connical hats – alongside exotic places like the inner labyrinths of the old city of Fez, in Morocco, and the freezing cold in deep-winter Russia – bleak but totally satisfying Bourdain’s boyhood notions of the KGB, melancholy and absurdity.

Alongside writing about the food and the countries he visits, Bourdain includes running asides about the film crew that is travelling with him.  The mishaps, pranks and problems encountered by a chef-turned-writer who is confronted daily with a television camera tracking his every move and a producer will do anything for ‘good television’ including an aging iguana that ends up in his soup all make for entertaining reading. Bourdain confesses to having had problems in the past with drugs, and he spends lot of his travels drinking it up with the locals, but he doesn’t hide his faults, instead he lets the reader into his life – insecurities and paranoias are shared – which I found refreshing. In the age now where celebrity chefs are the norm and their images are primped and preened to a squeaky clean level, confidence and arrogance abounds, and publicists have created the chef’s image, it was refreshing to read Bourdain’s humble confessions that he felt out of his depth, that at times he was miserable and wanted to go home. It was honest, it was human, and it reflects what it feels like to travel for extended periods. He’s enthusiastic about the food and genuine in his interactions with the people he meets – he’s not playing a role, that’s what his producers have issues with. He hasn’t mastered the art of manipulating the audience.

There are some fabulously entertaining moments, and one of my favourites is his trip to Russia. His youthful romantic ideas are well written, and he manages to give a good insight into life in Russia at the time, proceeds to get rip-snorting drunk with his buddy only to have the producer tell him at the end of dinner, when neither of them can walk straight, that the film crew forgot to shoot an opening scene, and so the two drunken men attempt to redo the scene with limited success. The trip to Fez and out into the Moroccan desert is filled with romantic charms and the mystery of the ‘other’ and his experiences in Japan uncover an aspect to food that is not widely known, especially the when he heads to a special retreat and the food arrives in a multitude of courses.

Having travelled through Vietnam, only a decade or so later, it was interesting to note how much the country has changed, developed, and that the uniqueness, the undiscovered charm that Bourdain writes about and is no longer there. In that respect A Cook’s Tour also serves as small reminder of how places change, how nothing stays the same, and the importance of getting out there and enjoying things before they disappear. The book also pays homage to the ties of friendship and the firm bonds that he has forged with his ‘crew’ the men and women from the kitchens in New York that he has worked with and how, in many ways, they are family.

Ultimately, Bourdain’s books is about more than food, it’s about the relationships we have with food, the people we dine with, the environment and nostalgia all combining to give us those great food memories that we all have. That’s what makes the perfect meal.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury Publishing 2001)