Book Review: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, Bloomsberry, 2015, US; reviewed by Jeff Hirsch

The War on Drugs has been a dismal failure. Hundreds of billions have been wasted on this war, millions of lives ruined, and the number of addicts and arrests continue to increase. The only real beneficiaries are companies who build prisons, prison guards, corrupt politicians and the judges, lawyers, cops and probation officers whose livelihoods depend on administration of‘drug criminals.’ 2.5 million people in the US are incarcerated, at least half because of the victimless crimes of using marijuana, heroin, cocaine, etc.
Crime skyrocketed during the Prohibition of alcohol in the US in the ’20s and ’30s; similarly many states in Mexico are now crumbling because of drug money corrupting civil governments.
Chasing the Scream (CTS) is a great read for anyone wanting to understand how to create a more sane drug policy. Decriminalization and/or legalization are discussed. Legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco kill several hundred thousand people a year; a tiny fraction of that number die from marijuana, cocaine, heroin despite widespread ‘illegal’ use. Research has shown that most higher mammals from monkeys to elephants like to alter their consciousness through mind-altering chemicals. Any prohibition by the state is fighting millions of years of biological evolution and is therefore futile.
What would be a better and more humane policy for the regulation of drug usage? CTS gives a lot of answers. Legal or decriminalized use with attendant medical, psychiatric care should be made available for people who become addicted. I’m not advocating for the use of drugs; I’m arguing, as does the author Hari, for the sane regulation of drugs. How to minimize damage to the user and society is the major question.
In Portugal, for example, hard drug use has plummeted since decriminalization in the 1970s. Crime, due to addicts trying to get money to feed their habit, has dropped dramatically there. Where clean needles and heroin and methadone are administered by medical personnel, AIDS has declined. The situation for a busted drug user who has served his prison time is loss of voting rights, job difficulties, housing discrimination. This may lead to depression and other psychiatric difficulties, and possibly more drug abuse.
Why do so many people use drugs, especially in the US? Traumatic and unhealed psychological wounds are big factors. So are the misery caused by lack of jobs, poverty, and alienation. After the great recession of 2008, illicit drug use greatly increased. The outsourcing of jobs where labor was cheaper, over the past 20-30 years, produced more psychological pain. Drug usage increased simply to numb this pain. People who do find work which is physically taxing and mind numbing, such as in the oil patch, also turn to drugs.
Research has shown that most people who haven’t had traumatic psychological injuries in their life don’t become addicted when trying drugs. There’s a famous experiment in which a rat in a cage pressed a lever to receive a liquid cocaine hit. The rat pressed the lever so much that it eventually died. The conclusion drawn was that cocaine was so addictive that rats would die from malnutrition by pressing the lever to get more.
A more recent experiment modified the cage and environment of the rats but left access to the cocaine. This time, there were other rats, rat toys, and other interesting objects that the rats liked. THERE WERE NO RAT ADDICTS IN THIS MODIFIED RICH ENVIRONMENT. Conclusion: loneliness and an impoverished environment caused the isolated rat to press the lever until exhaustion and death. The parallel to human society is obvious. Our competitive capitalistic system with a very few big winners and lots of marginalized losers, produces a zero sum game where, to a large extent, drugs are used to mitigate the pain and stress of this competition. In a more cooperative system, this dynamic would be greatly reduced.
Anecdotes, case histories, and description of other countries experimenting with decriminalization, legalization are richly described in CTS. It’s a really entertaining informative read. But there’s another factor which isn’t discussed in depth in CTS, but should’ve been. If drugs were decriminalized, medically administered, and state-owned, hundreds of billions would be taken out of the underground economy. Angry, unemployed, and marginalized drug industry people would be ripe for revolution. The illegality of drugs keeps our vicious system from exploding. Their criminalization justifies repression.
John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s aide who was arrested during Watergate, was asked about the politics of drug prohibition by Dan Baum (Legalize it All – how to win the war on drugs, Harpers Magazine, April 2016 p. 22) “Nixon … had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin and criminalizing both, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

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