Before 1914, "you could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine," writes Johann Hari in his monumental book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs. Moreover, "the most popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca-Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women."
The classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women.And yet, there was no drug problem as we now know it. Early attempts at control were regulatory in nature. Nevertheless, the folks walking the straight and narrow convinced a nation to impose an outright ban on the most dangerous drug, alcohol, in 1919. Prohibition reigned for fourteen years until it was repealed in 1933. During this time, the people had not reformed. They still wanted booze, and so organized crime moved in. Violent criminals engaged in turf wars. Al Capone's gang wiped out seven members of the North Side Irish in the infamous Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929.
The Beginning of It All
But prohibition was repealed in 1933. Indeed, it was part of Franklin Roosevelt's campaign promises. Up to then, there were only sporadic attempts at narcotics control. A rising star in the bureaucracy was prominent in the attempt.
A man named Harry Anslinger traveled around the world fighting international drug trafficking. In 1929, he was appointed assistant commissioner in the Bureau of (Alcohol) Prohibition. In 1930, he was appointed to head the fledgling Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which he ran for 32 years.
But when he was appointed, he immediately had a problem. "A war on narcotics alone – cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914 – wasn't enough. They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn't keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more." Anslinger, argues Hari, was the true father of the War on Drugs as we know it today.
Johann Hari's book is a tour de force in its depiction of the drug war. Divided into five parts, it examines the drug war and drug culture in great depth. The first part looks at those 1930s origins of the War on Drugs. Anslinger and his men were driven by fear and loathing not only of drugs, but of the culture that used them – jazz musicians and blacks.
A war on narcotics alone wasn't enough. They were only used by a tiny minority. They needed more.He had a particular bee in his bonnet for singer Billie Holiday. The jazz community were heavy marijuana users, and though Anslinger had previously written weed off as not worth pursuing, he now saw an opportunity. Almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were using the drug much more than white people.
He pushed lurid tales of drug-addled blacks seducing white women or worse. He also raised the spectre of Chinese opium dens and Asians with "a liking for the charms of Caucasian girls...from good families," leading them into "unspeakable sexual depravity."
He defied evidence to the contrary. "He wrote to thirty scientific experts asking a series of questions about marijuana. Twenty-nine of them wrote back saying it would be wrong to ban it, and that it was widely misrepresented in the press. Anslinger decided to ignore them and quoted instead the one expert who believed it was a great evil that had to be eradicated."
Anslinger went even further. Doctors were still legally allowed to prescribe narcotics to patients for illness but not addiction, and Anslinger went after an outspoken doctor, Edward Williams, who was an articulate spokesman for narcotics use. Anslinger's department engaged in entrapment to lock up the man and cow the medical profession. Writes Hari, "You only have to destroy a few doctors to silence the rest. Maximum intimidation. This was always [Anslinger’s] way."
Hari also looks at the role of the mob, namely, how a gangster named Arnold Rothstein moved in to control the illegal market once Anslinger had destroyed the legal one.
I'm only giving a few isolated quotes to catch the flavour of the book, but the chapters on Anslinger, Billie Holiday, and Arnold Rothstein are rich in detail. They're written at a torrid pace in prose that is hard to put down. The book is compelling.
The second part looks at the drug war today. Hari talks to a young transgendered drug gangster named Chino. A girl who wants to be a man, dresses like a man, fights like a man, and has absolute control over his gang, the Souls of Mischief. He learns the ins and outs of the drug trade on the streets. The violence. The allure. The profits. He cites Milton Friedman to the effect that the drug trade adds ten thousand murders a year in the US, and Professor Jeffrey Miron at Harvard believes this is a low estimate: "Take the drug trade away from criminals, he calculates, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by between 25 and 75 percent."
Take the drug trade away from criminals, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by 25 to 75 percent.He talks to Leigh Maddox, a former cop who was a gung-ho drug enforcer. She also worked undercover busting ultra-violent factions of the Ku Klux Klan. Now she is active with LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). What led to her epiphany? Hari tells the story.
The third part includes the most horrifying tales from the drug wars. Chapter 8, called State of Shame tells the disturbing story of a chain gang of female meth addicts in Arizona. Like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, they are forced to wear signs saying why they are there: "I am a meth addict," and so on. They are roused at 5 a.m. without food and hustled off to work, shackled in leg irons. The sheriff proudly refers to his jail as his "concentration camp." The chain gang is forced to chant. Several chants are quoted. Here's one:
We're in stripes
They're in brown (meaning the guards)
We walk in chains with them close by
We dare not run, we dare not hide
Don't you dare give them no lip
'Cause they got tasers on their hip
There's a punishment cell called the Hole. Hari asks to see it and the guards oblige. "The cell doors have a tiny slit in them, and as the guards unlock them, eyes peer out. When they see an outsider, they immediately start yelling for help, and their voices have a cracked quality, as though their throats are too narrow to let out their words. The first thing that hits me as I approach these eyes is the stink, literally, of shit: it is so overwhelming it makes me retch."
One day Hari is talking to the head of a prisoners rights group and ask what the most shocking thing she's encountered is:
"She started to reel off a long list – and around the middle of her litany, she referred in passing to a case where a woman was cooked in a cage, before continuing on. Sorry Donna, I said, can we go back a moment? Tell me about the woman who was cooked in the cage."
The story is horrifying in its cruelty and its absurdity. Yet, Hari avers, lest you think the Arizona prison system is "a freakish outlier – a ghoulish parody of the wider prison network, the more I traveled, the more former prisoners I met, and the more studies I read, it slowly became clear to me that this is, in fact, quite typical of how addicts are treated across the United States and around the world."
The system treats these people like human trash. As subhumans. As refuse to be abused and discarded.
This section of the book also looks at two stories from south of the border, and how the cartels literally own the police. There is a poignant story of a mother seeking justice for her daughter, murdered at the hands of someone under the protection of a cartel. She marches relentlessly, even seeing the President of Mexico, all to no avail. Her son escaped the cartels only by fleeing across the border and turning himself in to US authorities, where he is now safe in an American prison.
The Real Root of the Issue
The fourth part of the book looks at new research into addiction. Gabor Mate, a British Columbia medical doctor, gave up his practice to work with addicts and found that most addiction has its roots in child abuse.
Addiction is an adaptive behaviour that compensates or seeks relief from loneliness, isolation, and alienation.Bruce Alexander, another British Columbia scientist and a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, researched addiction. He came away with astounding conclusions that revolutionized the way we think about drugs. Much of the drug war of the previous hundred years was based on the chemical theory of addictive drugs, the idea that certain drugs had chemical hooks and if you used them, you had a physical need for the drugs. When people went off the drugs they suffered from withdrawal. Experiments had shown that rats given cocaine will use it and use it and use it until they drop dead.
But Alexander found that during periods when the police had managed to completely choke off Vancouver's heroin supply, junkies were not dying of withdrawal or going crazy. They carried on as before, using the cocktails of fillers and contaminants but no drug as if it were the drug.
Alexander theorized that there was more to addiction than a chemical hook. So he redid the rat studies. This time, he had two groups of rats: isolated rats, and rats in a communal setting. Both had two sets of water bottles, one that was pure water, and the other laced with morphine. The solitary rats exhibited addictive behaviour, going for the morphine water. The socialized rats did not. Alexander came to the conclusion that addiction was an adaptive behaviour that compensated or sought relief from loneliness, isolation, and alienation.
And indeed, real world facts bear this out. During the Vietnam War, about 20 percent of soldiers became addicted to heroin while serving there. But when they returned home, 95 percent of them just stopped cold turkey within a year.
Drugs serve as a compensation for empty, sterile lives. The drug subculture itself forms a bond among addicts. It gives them a sense of belonging. As Alexander puts it, "It's a lot better to be a junkie than to be nothing at all, and that's the alternative these guys face – being nothing at all." As Hari puts it, "When you have been told you are a piece of crap all your life, embracing the identity of being a piece of crap, embracing the other pieces of crap – it seems better than being alone."
The final section of the book looks at recent changes in attitudes towards drugs. It looks at the introduction of safe injection sites in Vancouver, Canada, the revolutionary decriminalization that took place in Portugal in 2000, how and why it happened, and the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado and how they differed.
Prohibition drives out soft drugs and replaces them with hard drugs.The leaders of the legalization movement in Washington were spurred by what they saw as inequities in the law and how they were applied, and by the devastating effects the drug war had on its victims, the vast majority of which were black or Latino in spite of the fact that an equal number of white people smoked it. The Colorado advocates took the tack of arguing that marijuana was, in fact, less harmful than alcohol. Both arguments proved successful.
Hari took a trip to Uruguay, where drugs have not only been decriminalized, but legalized. In Portugal, the use of drugs is legal, but sales are not. In Uruguay, there are no restrictions at all. Hari looks at the results of these experiments in ending the war on drugs, and they are positive.
One important note in this section is about the "iron law of prohibition." As noted at the beginning of this review, before 1914, lots of home remedies and even popular beverages included narcotics. People used them without ill effect. They took the edge off a stressful life. But the amount of drug in these products was small. With prohibition, stronger drugs were exploited. It is easier to smuggle a small amount of a potent drug than a large amount of a weaker drug. The same goes for alcohol. Before prohibition, beer and wine were the most popular beverages. During prohibition, hard liquor and moonshine were pushed by the black market. It's easier to smuggle a keg of hard stuff than cases and cases of beer. Prohibition drives out soft drugs and replaces them with hard drugs – the iron law of prohibition.
Saying What Needs to Be Said
This book is a powerful antidote to those who would maintain the war on drugs. It is empirical, solidly evidence-based. And it is written with a pathos that will make the blood boil. The chapter on the Arizona chain gang and the woman who was cooked to death in a solitary cell in the middle of a boiling hot desert made me angry and sad. Angry that this sort of inhumanity towards fellow human beings, this treating of some people as garbage, as human trash, goes on in the United States today. The United States! Land of the free and home of the brave. The attitudes fomenting this travesty are reminiscent of the Nazis and their disdain for Jews as subhumans. It is, frankly, a disgusting story, and one that needs to be told.
The inhumanity towards these fellow human beings goes on in the United States – the land of the free and home of the brave.Hari's book, in my opinion, is one of the most important books to come along in the last few years. Everyone who is concerned with human rights should read it. Every politician should read it.
I would be remiss if I did not add an important caveat. Johann Hari has been under a cloud for a few years. A journalist and columnist for the Independent in Britain, Hari won the Orwell Prize in 2008 for distinguished political writing, its youngest winner ever. The award is given for meeting Orwell's goal of "make political writing into an art." But in 2011, charges of plagiarism were levelled and he was suspended from the newspaper. He returned the Orwell Prize, and he was accused of doctoring Wikipedia entries on his critics using a pseudonym. This checkered history may lead to doubts about the current work.
Let it be noted that Hari has thoroughly documented this book with 60 pages of footnotes. Additionally, the website companion to the book has audio files of every quote in the book. Hari bent over backwards to redeem himself with this book. And he has succeeded in my opinion. The book is a gem.