Review: “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari


Good friend and intrepid seeker of truth Katya offers us a guest review of a controversial title.

I never sought this book out. I didn’t know it was coming out. I saw an article making the rounds on FB called “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” in which the author, Johann Hari, actually lays out some of the key points of his book. Not 15 minutes later, after devouring the sample on Amazon, I had the book downloaded on my Kindle and reading. And reading. And reading.

Fair warning: drug legalization is a very controversial subject, and the author is open about his own stance on the matter. Depending on your mileage, reading this book can be like being kicked in the teeth, or like finally hearing a song you have only gotten snippets off in the past. In other words, proceed with caution.

Talking  about a controversial subject from an objective standpoint is hard. Talking about it while acknowledging your own bias is even harder. Hari’s book is part investigative journalism, part historical narrative, part political manifesto, and all personal introspection and reflexivity. He openly admits his stance on legalizing drugs, but also that, for a long time, he too viewed addicts as criminals and weaklings, and drugs as a corrupting force. “Chasing the Scream” isn’t just presenting the war on drugs, it convincingly debunks a lot of the myths associated with addiction. The journalistic and historical accounts are only part of the book – the rest is the author rethinking his own assumptions and addressing his own hidden fears, which makes “Chasing the Scream” better than a political manifesto and propaganda – it lends its arguments a human perspective. (Let’s face it, it’s easier to read “This is what I found and this is what it meant to me,” than “This is what I found and so we should all do X, Y, Z.”)

(For the record, Hari doesn’t advocate actively taking drugs. He even addresses the differences in legalization narratives in a chapter. He is, however, for regulation, safety, and treating addicts with compassion and love.)

Here’s some of the facts presented here: Not everyone who has ever used drugs becomes an addict – otherwise everyone who ever had surgery would be hooked on morphine. Addicts are not criminals – often, the addiction is a symptom of a bigger problem, and the underlying cultural narratives that justify  stigmatization and shaming deepen the problem instead of fixing it. The criminalization of drugs didn’t eradicate addiction, in fact, it made it a lot more worse, by handing the market over to the cartels and the mafia who don’t give a fuck about product quality (or human life.)

As a migrant woman in the UK, I’m not unfamiliar with “popular narratives about the Other” and how reductive and destructive they can be. As a peace studies student, I am also well familiar with how identity can be politicized and used as a weapon, or at the very least, a divider (Look up the historical origins of islamophobia in France. No, really. It’ll make your head spin.) But I never considered that the war on drugs has similar origins, or that it is just as dangerous. Now I do.

There are a lot of personal stories in this book. Personal tragedies and triumphs, political intrigue, the dark irony of living. (Which makes this an excellent read even if you don’t particularly care for the political debate.) You don’t have to buy the argument, or even consider it, but there is A LOT that sticks with you for days afterwards. Here’s what stood out for me:

About 100 years ago, people used to take drugs on a regular basis, but in very diluted forms. Coca tea and morphine were de rigeur, and could be obtained cheaply and with a prescription. After the ban on drugs was imposed, drug dealers imposed a monopoly, charged extortionate prices, and also provided stronger, unregulated drugs. The addicts of the day were pushed into crime and prostitution to get their fix, and their habits got a lot worse. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think about the way people use antidepressants more and more, and how people push for medication rather than therapy. (I had a doctor try to convince me to have a Prozac prescription after a paltry 10 minute consultation, and he wasn’t a psychiatrist – he was a GP, seeing me for the first time.) Antidepressants are addictive. You need to wean yourself off them. What would happen if some politician suddenly decides to ban Prozac?

Like I said, this is a political book. It may appeal to your inner history buff, or it might make you very, very uncomfortable. But it does make you think.

It certainly made me.


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