Stop the Drug War: “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari

We’ve been fighting the War on Drugs for more than 100 years. And we’re no closer to “winning” it than we were a century ago. That’s the unsurprising message of Johann Hari’s well-written, insightful and even gripping account of the Drug War called Chasing the Scream.

It is, however, the book’s surprising message that likely made Noam Chomsky find the book “wonderful” and impossible to lay aside. It’s probably what made “Democracy Now’s” Amy Goodman call it “astounding.”  British comedian, ex-addict and social commentator, Russell Brand said Chasing the Scream was “intoxicatingly thrilling as crack, without destroying your teeth.” He added that “It will change the drug debate forever.”

In fact, that’s what Hari’s book did for me personally; it changed entirely the way I think about drugs of all kinds from marijuana to heroin, crack and Oxycontin. It made me realize (and this is the surprising part) that most drug consumers, even of those last three just mentioned substances, are not addicts. More than 90% of them, even if they get high every weekend (and maybe on Wednesdays too), continue to hold responsible jobs, are good family members and serve their communities just as well as most of the rest of us.

That’s because drug addiction is not caused by principally by chemical hooks. Contrary to what we’ve been told ever since “Reefer Madness,” merely smoking marijuana or injecting heroin or crack – merely consuming Oxycontin as a pain reliever or even just to get high – won’t ipso facto hook you.

No, it’s the underlying loneliness you might be experiencing; it’s the emptiness of your life or the breakdown of your key relationships that drives one to compensate by seeking relief in drugs. Moreover, the drug you’ll probably turn to for coping with such human problems will not be found on that list of prohibited controlled substances. Yet it’s the one that’s proven most destructive of all. It’s alcohol.

And alcohol is legal, and government controlled. Its taxation is a major source of revenue for the state. Additionally, alcoholism is not generally treated as a crime, but as a disease. It is treated most effectively by offering its victims community support and counselling of the type they find in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That was among the hard lessons learned here in the United States during the era of Prohibition. Then it was found that declaring alcohol illegal gave rise to a black market controlled by the worst elements of society that eventually burgeoned into gangs headed by super-criminals like Al Capone. Removing prohibition and treating alcoholics with understanding and compassion ended most of that.

After travelling the world from the streets of New York to Mexico, Switzerland, Uruguay and points between, a skeptical Johann Hari gradually came to the conclusion that treating drugs similarly, i.e. by removing prohibition, would have a similar effect in terms of fighting the scourge of gang violence and drug addiction.

The gangs would disappear or be greatly reduced in number and power. And the 10% of drug takers whose use of now controlled substances has become problematic would have their addictions taken care of with counselling and psychiatric help intended to assist their recovery process, and if necessary, find them employment and housing.  

More specifically, the success of parallel programs in countries as disparate as Switzerland (where drugs were decriminalized, but their sale not legalized) and Uruguay (whose project has been to both decriminalize and legalize drug use) shows that the relatively small percentage of problematic addicts are not best served by imprisonment. Instead, best practices achieve superior results by making drugs readily available to patients in dignified and controlled settings staffed by trained medical personnel including counsellors and life coaches. Such treatment continues as long as needed – until affected patients decide they no longer need drugs. And most do eventually come to that decision.

The distinction between decriminalization and legalization is important. To decriminalize drug use means that users will no longer be treated as delinquents. They can, for instance possess a supply of opiates sufficient to meet their needs for as many as ten days.

Switzerland has adopted policy of this nature. It treats addicts like hospital outpatients, offers them their drug of choice in circumstances supervised by medical personnel, and makes counselling available as well. However, as Hari points out, failure to legalize sale of drugs means that drug distribution outside government facilities remains in the hands of drug gangs. Nonetheless, Switzerland’s decriminalization procedures have greatly reduced problematic drug use which so often involves theft, robbery, prostitution, and violence.

Uruguay’s approach aspires to be more comprehensive. It has moved towards both decriminalizing and legalizing drug use of all kinds. This means a reversion to something like the situation in the United States before 1914, when heroin was first outlawed. This all-inclusive approach includes treating less potent drugs like marijuana in the same way as tobacco and liquor here in the United States. Heroin, crack, opiates and amphetamines on the other hand, would be treated like prescription drugs, with the state offering all sorts of programs to help stop usage. Unsurprisingly, legalization slightly increases drug use. Significantly, however, it reduces the already mentioned street crime and bankrupts drug gangs.     

This is a key point in Hari’s book, viz. that the prohibition of drugs – the War on Drugs itself – represents the equivalent of underwriting the illicit drug industry. It makes it possible. The War on Drugs guarantees the emergence of a whole economic sector controlled only by smugglers and illicit drug pushers. The industry also includes peasant farmers who grow marijuana and poppies as well as other workers who process, pack, and load the contraband on ships, planes, and trucks.

By design or not, the drug industry is also responsible for spawning a hugely lucrative counter-commerce. This includes government officials, detective agencies, police across the planet, and enormous prison staffs. Their participation in the drug war is funded by billions of taxpayer dollars and is responsible for the employment of millions. Consequently, threatened elimination of these anti-narcotic agencies represents a mortal threat to all those jobs. If drugs were legalized, many would be profoundly disappointed at the loss of their livelihoods.

The point is that none of the parties – certainly not the drug lords and their employees, but also not the anti-drug warriors – wants to see the end of anti-drug campaigns. Hence, the Drug War has no prospect of ending. It’s a key part of the world economy.

Yet, the legalization of drugs and the treatment of addicts as patients rather than as criminals is the only proven way of lessening problematic drug use while eliminating the power of drug cartels and gangs.  

In the end, as Johann Hari points out, what’s required is a complete change of attitude towards drug consumption and the consequent cessation of the Drug War. Societies everywhere must realize that overcoming addiction means overcoming its social causes. It means rechanneling the billions of dollars now wasted on the failed century-long Drug War into restructuring society to make it more caring, loving, and supportive. It entails shaping a culture where happiness is sought in family connections, loving friendships, and in enriched community relationships rather than in endless, pointless and unsatisfying consumption. It means making it possible for people to have stable homes, well-rewarded employment, caring neighborhoods.

Reading Chasing the Scream invites readers to imagine a world without the Drug War. It would be a world:

  • With greatly reduced crime and a shrunken prison system
  • Where police forces could be downsized and rehabilitated in the eyes of poorer communities as a welcome rather than a threatening presence
  • Where countries like Mexico would be freed from control by drug cartels
  • Where refugees from those countries would be dramatically reduced or eliminated, thus greatly impacting immigration problems and the perceived need for expensive border walls.
  • Where the billions upon billions of dollars currently spent in a clearly unsuccessful war on drugs including those huge police forces, overcrowded prisons, and enormous bureaucracies intended to administer it all could be rechanneled to help the merely 10% percent of drug users whose usage is problematic.

In short, cessation of the Drug War, decriminalization and legalization of drugs of all kinds, would reshape our world in ways that would reduce and/or eliminate many of its most vexing problems.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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