Book review: Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari

Cannabis leaves whose cultivation, sale and consumption has been legalised in Uruguay. Picture: Getty
Cannabis leaves whose cultivation, sale and consumption has been legalised in Uruguay. Picture: Getty
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FASCINATING but frustrating polemic suggests legalisation is the answer to all society’s ills

Chasing The Scream

Johann Hari

Bloomsbury, £18.99

To make the world a better place, argues Johann Hari in this fascinating but frustrating polemic, there’s one change in the law that would work everywhere. It would empty jails of people needlessly there, reduce HIV transmission and drug overdoses, put an end to a vast amount of violent crime, and restore trust in the police.

All we’ve got to do is legalise drugs. Once we’ve done that, adults will switch to softer drugs, children will find it harder to start taking them, and addicts will be cared for instead of shamed, and find it easier to give up their habit. Ultimately, drugs will become boring, and when that happens the war on them will finally be won.

The first thing to be said is that Hari has talked to some truly amazing people in the three years he spent researching this. In Portugal, he meets Joao Goulao, who decriminalised possession of all drugs in 2001 (though selling them is still illegal), since when drug abuse stats have plummeted. Firms get tax breaks if they employ former addicts and pure drugs are supplied in special clinics to the 10 per cent who can’t give up. If the war on drugs is ending anywhere, Hari says, it’s here: not even the right-wing parties want to turn back the clock on drugs reform.

In Uruguay, he meets Jose Mujica, the president and former guerrilla leader who lived in his tin shack rather than the presidential palace. In 2013, partly to make sure that the drugs cartels in neighbouring Panama didn’t move into his country, and partly because he realised that the war on drugs had already been tried in vain for 100 years, Mujica ensured that his country became the world’s first to make it legal to grow, sell and consume marijuana.

Whether Hari interviews a Mexican cartel member, the widow of a drug addict who died after being “cooked alive” in an open cage in the Arizona desert heat, a pro-drugs policewoman who retrained as a lawyer in Baltimore, or a transgender drug dealer in New York, the message comes back time and again: there’s got to be a better way forward. In some ways, though, that’s the problem with the book. I’d have liked to find out more about each of these people, to have sense of what it felt like to meet them, a more emotionally detailed record of the encounter.

Take Juan Olgun. When Hari meets him, he is standing on a box on a street in Ciudad Juarez, over the corpse of yet another one of the 60,000 Mexicans murdered in the last five years of Mexico’s drugs wars. His skin is painted silver and he is dressed as an angel, holding a sign demanding that the local drug lord seek forgiveness. We get just a glimpse of him, a hint of surprise that none of the “angels of Juarez” have yet been shot, turn a page, and he’s gone. Back we go into the argument. Because that’s what matters here: Hari has a big thesis to put together, one that takes in history, racism, psychology and the nature of addiction as much as it does drugs.

For all the accusations of plagiarism that have tainted his journalism in the past (and which he addresses head-on here by putting all his interviews online), Hari is a skilled polemicist: he knows the techniques that work. Setting up a big bête noire is one of them, so here we have Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in Washington, who kicked off the war on drugs in a fit of bureaucratic empire-building in 1930, gathered all the evidence he could find of “reefer madness”, and tied it wherever possible to hints that drugs made non-whites forget their place in society.

Making his thesis into a journey of discovery is another effective technique, allowing Hari to appear to be surprised by facts he must surely have known all along (did he really not know there was a blatant racial element to US drugs busts in the 1940s?). Disregarding the import of some more inconvenient facts can work too (he points out that “only” 20 per cent get addicted to crystal meth – that’s still a lot of people). Put it all together, and the effect is as manipulative as a Michael Moore documentary.

But there’s a reason for that. His ex is an addict. So when Hari points out that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection,” it comes straight from the heart: his ex is passed out on his spare bed as he writes. “If you are alone,” he adds, “you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance.”

I’m sure that’s true. But am I going to vote to legalise crack, and have children smoking their father’s legally held crack stash just as, in my day, they used to smoke their dad’s cigarettes? I think not.