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.

What If Mumia Abu-Jamal Were President: Communism in the Bible

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Easter: ACTS 2: 42-47; PSALMS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1st PETER: 1: 3-9; JOHN 20: 19-31

Last week, on Easter Sunday, I presented Jose Mujica as a model president. Mujica, I pointed out, was the president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015. He had been a Marxist Tupamaros (Robinhood) guerrilla since his student days. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured for 12 years – 3 of them spent in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well. As president, he introduced profound changes in Uruguayan politics. As I noted, he took steps towards the legalization of all drugs in an effort to defeat the country’s drug gangs.

But perhaps Mujica’s most impactful step came in the example he offered national chief executives everywhere in his rejection of the typical presidential lifestyle. He gave away 90% of his yearly salary to the poor and dedicated that money to providing housing for the country’s homeless. He sold the presidential limousine in favor of retaining his old Volkswagen beetle. He continued living with his wife in his run-down peasant farmhouse.

In my frustration over this year’s Hobson’s choice between Trump and Biden, I couldn’t help thinking: what if we chose a U.S. president who did something like that? What if, instead of looking for leadership to billionaires like Trump or lifelong politicians like Biden, we elected someone like Jose Mujica – a peasant, a worker, a radical thinker? How would that change American politics? How would that change the world?

What if we elected someone like Mumia Abu-Jamal? Abu-Jamal, of course, is the Marxist Black Panther journalist who had spent years as a political prisoner on death row. Allegedly he killed a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 – a charge he has always vehemently denied. In any case, he regularly publishes insightful, edgy comment from prison and is often interviewed on NPR and programs like “Democracy Now.” What if Mumia were our president?    

I raise those questions because they’re suggested by the readings for this second Sunday of Easter. They expose us to the shocking fact that resurrection for the first Christians turned everything completely upside-down. They actually embraced communism and recognized as their leader a worker, a victim of capital punishment from death row. Yes, they embraced the communist ideal that inspired both Mujica and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Today’s Readings

The readings are brilliant and timely in that they not only give us an insight into the primitive Christian community. They also urge us to turn our politics upside-down. They do so first by offering an abstract description of the original Christian community, and then by fleshing out that description with narrative about a key encounter of a skeptic with the risen Christ who embodies the basis of the communist vision – identification with society’s victims and despised.

Here are my “translations” of those readings. You can find the originals here to see if I’ve got them right:  

ACTS 2: 42-47: The first Christians were communists. Following the teachings of Jesus, they prayerfully shared meals each day and all their possessions – from each according to ability to each according to need. Their example was so awe-inspiring that everyone loved them, and their numbers grew rapidly.

PSALMS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24: Christian communalism was a dim reflection of the benevolence of Life Itself as demonstrated in nature and throughout human history. No one truly owns anything; it’s all GIFT. Though unrecognized by the world, renouncing private property is the rejected cornerstone of human community – the key to surmounting every human problem. Accepting this truth, even in the worst of times, those committed to justice manifest super-human strength, courage, and joy.

FIRST PETER: 1: 3-9: It’s as if they were all born again into a new creation filled with hope that is stronger than death itself. Talk about inheritance! Communal sharing has made us richer than kings and their vast storehouses of gold. We’ve experienced the very goal of history – even though the world’s opposition to our sharing obscures the fact that we are on the right path – the one blazed by Jesus himself (and the other great divine incarnations). There is no other portal to human happiness.  

JOHN 20: 19-31: Fear of the world, its violence and opposition to Jesus’ communalism has intimidated us into denying his way. Yes, we’re all denialists like the one they called “The Twin” (Didymus). He is our double in rejecting in absentia Jesus’ Holy Spirit of peace and forgiveness, of sharing and community that make peace possible. Correcting false perception means recognizing Christ himself in those the world has wounded and assassinated for daring to follow him.

Christian Communism

Please do read for yourselves today’s first reading, ACTS: 2: 42-47. It’s significant that on this week after Easter, the passage immediately directs us not to “spiritual” concern with heaven and the afterlife, but to material property, land and the primacy of the marginalized in organizing community life. Here’s a fuller description of the way the early Christians lived. You’ll find it in ACTS, Chapter 4:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).

Note that the description immediately connects the interior lives of believers (heart and soul unity) with communizing the group’s possessions. They sold their land and houses, pooled the resulting resources and redistributed wealth on the basis of need. All of this was an expression, the passage says, of early Christian belief in the new way of life expressed in the term “resurrection.” Communism was the logical, practical expression of following Jesus’ teaching. Doing so brought the community grace, i.e. favor with God and with those outside their community.

How different that understanding is from what, in effect, we’ve been taught since infancy about capitalism as somehow God’s way. It’s as if the above passage read:

“Now the whole group of those who believed entered into competition with one another. They fiercely guarded their possessions and considered private property as sacred. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the dog-eat-dog world Jesus described as God’s Kingdom. So, they all viewed the “needy” as lazy and unproductive. They evicted them when they defaulted on rent and then tore down their hovels to enrich themselves and develop gentrified neighborhoods. In this way, Jesus’ early followers became rich and prosperous, while the poor got their just deserts – poverty and misery.” 

I’m not exaggerating. That emphasis on private property, on the law of the jungle, and justifying a resulting gap between rich and poor is embraced by many Christians as if the godly life Jesus endorsed could be described exactly as above.

Jesus’ Place in Communism

Now switch your attention to the Gospel reading for today. It brings us inside the first Christian house church whose communism was described abstractly in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It shows Jesus’ closest followers affirming the enduring relevance of their hero as a leader remarkably like Mumia Abu-Jamal. He’s dark-skinned and condemned under false charges by the state. He not only comes from death row; he was actually a victim of torture and capital punishment. And yet, he somehow lives and continues to teach his way to community happiness!

Recall the scene. Jesus’ closest friends are in hiding, imprisoned by fear of the Romans who had just executed their great teacher and of their traitorous fellow countrymen – the Temple priests and scribal establishment – who cooperated with the foreign occupiers.

So, the doors are locked and bolted. Jesus’ inner circle feels threatened, lost and betrayed by their own naivete in following a quixotic revolutionary who had filled them with such hope for the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Inevitably, however, conversation must have turned to Jesus, his teachings and to rehearsal of the tragic events of the Passover weekend just completed. And those memories evoke Jesus’ presence, even for the iconic skeptic, Thomas called Twin (Didymus) and “Doubting.”

Thomas is really our Twin in his reluctance to believe that salvation can come from an executed criminal – or, perhaps more accurately, that life is stronger than death. And yet, like Karl Marx, he discovers that the deliverance of the human race comes from below, from a despised member of the working class, not from above and the royal or priestly classes so admired by the mainstream.

Conclusion

Thomas’ reluctant faith and that of his community as presented in today’s readings, call us to a twofold realization. The first is that our entire way of life is on the wrong track. Happiness and the good life (escape from out profound unhappiness) are not found in individual pursuit of wealth as the capitalist story of Jesus would have it.

No, it’s found in radical sharing that has us orienting community life towards the welfare of the least among us – as was the practice of the first Christian community. (That is, as I’ve shown elsewhere, mixed economies are all we have. But they should be mixed in favor of the poor in percolate-up ways rather than in favor of the rich with trickle-down policies.)

The second Thomistic (and Marxist) realization is similar. It’s that we’ve been looking for community leadership in all the wrong places. Our leaders need to come not from David’s palaces, not from Temple priests, but from the streets, from carpenters’ workshops, and even from death row.

Imagine, if we embraced the communism exemplified in today’s readings as our guiding North Star. Imagine if instead of Trump or Biden, Jose Mujica or Mumia were our president. Imagine if we could overcome the denialism of our twin, Thomas the Doubter. That’s the kind of radicality followers of Jesus are called to.

Resurrect the World: End the War on Drugs

Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10:34A, 37-43; PS 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Colossians 3: 1-4; Pascal Victim Sequence; 1 Corinthians 5: 7B-8A; John 20: 1-9

On this Easter Sunday, I want to tell you a story of resurrection. It involves the ex-president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, and his personal resurrection from three years in a tomb. It’s about how he not only advanced his country’s resurgence from its profound drug problem, but set a shining example of national leadership from his country’s highest office.

The story is intimately connected with that of the poor man, Jesus, whose immortality billions celebrate today. As today’s readings tell us, this healer, teacher and champion of the poor spent three days in a tomb and is more alive today than ever he was 2000 years ago.

Focus on Mujica’s story comes from a personal experience that I had last January when I spent a couple of weeks at the border in Tijuana Mexico. There I worked with pro bono lawyers and volunteers offering legal help to immigrants, refugees and asylees. The group is called Al Otro Lado

In helping clients fill out paperwork, I discovered that most of the Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, and others I interviewed were driven from their countries of origin by drug gangs.

On the one hand, the experience made me think in general about drugs, addiction, and our country’s century-long “War on Drugs.” On the other hand, it drove me to reflect more deeply on resurrection and the possibilities for new life we celebrate on this Easter day.

The War on Drugs

Start with the war on drugs. Of course, we’re no closer to winning it than when first it began in 1914. (Before then, you could buy cocaine-based remedies, for example, at your local drug store – and at a low price.)

Moreover, so many of the problems that plague our world can be traced back to that spectacularly unsuccessful war. It’s not just the addiction and the gangs. It’s also the billions upon billions of dollars that have been wasted, the corruption of governments and law enforcement agencies throughout the world, the millions of souls who have been incarcerated or forced to leave their countries, as well as the thousands upon thousands who have been murdered by drug gangs and their police mob counterparts.

It all made me think: what if there were no drug war? What if drugs were entirely legal again? Wouldn’t that drive the gangs out of business? And wouldn’t all those other related problems disappear? Wouldn’t that lead to a kind of resurrection of humanity?

Think about it. Drug decriminalization and legalization would profoundly change the world!

But you might wonder (as I did) wouldn’t drug decriminalization and legalization also vitiate the planet? Wouldn’t our kids (and maybe we ourselves) all get hooked and end up staggering around in drug-induced stupors?

As it turns out, the answer is No. As Johann Hari points out in his page-turner study, Chasing the Scream, (as is the case with alcohol) less than 10% of those who use even cocaine, crack, and Oxycontin get hooked. The other 90% often take those controlled substances for recreation every weekend (and even on some weekdays) and still carry on normally in their families. They hold steady jobs and contribute to their communities. Even those who become addicted mature out of their problem after about 10 years. This means that the War on Drugs, laws against narcotics, and the resulting havoc are connected with something like 10% of users.

All of this is because drug addiction is not the result of chemical “hooks,” so that anyone taking them becomes ipso facto obsessed.  Instead, addiction is caused primarily by personal and social problems connected with childhoods marked by abuse, with loneliness, meaningless work, and lack of human connection.

Addictions are psychological and social diseases. They are not crimes. Punishing drug use as criminal only causes more drug use by aggravating its causes. It also feeds the gangs.

The Case of Uruguay

And that brings me to Jose Mujica and his resurrection from three years in a tomb. Mujica was a Tupamaros (Robin Hood) guerrilla during Uruguay’s revolutionary war against the country’s military dictatorship during the 1970s and ‘80s. He was captured by government forces, tortured mercilessly, and imprisoned for 12 years – three of them in the bottom of a well that his captors thought would be his final resting place. Those years gave him lots of time to think about life and his country’s problems.

When the revolution Mujica supported eventually triumphed, he in effect returned from the dead only to be elected his country’s president for five years (2010-2015). It was then that he set about decriminalizing the use of drugs beginning with marijuana. Contrary to all expectations, he was successful in reaching that goal.

[Not only that: as president, Mujica himself continued to live with his wife in their simple farmhouse. He gave 90% of his income as president to the poor (living on $775 per month), sold his presidential limousine to travel on public transportation, and passed legislation to give a laptop to every child in the country.]

The point here, however that the president’s action on the drug front represented a first step towards bankrupting his country’s drug cartels. His ultimate goal was to provide for users of all drugs a cheaper, safer, cleaner product, and set up locations for safe drug consumption. The facilities would be staffed by medical personnel, and by counsellors and life coaches intent on helping their clients find work, housing, and more meaningful lives.

In this way, drug cartels would suffer defeat and the country’s drug problem would be solved. Similar results from comparable policies had already been achieved in Switzerland, Portugal and elsewhere.

Easter Readings

Now, keeping in mind what I’ve just said about Mujica and drug use in general, connect it all to Easter. Read today’s liturgical selections. They recall that like Jose Mujica, Jesus of Nazareth set about bringing healing to the sick, liberation of captives from prison, and relief for the oppressed. Christian faith professes that such commitment brings enlightenment and (somehow) never-ending life. (What follows are my “translations.” The originals can be found here.)

ACTS 10:34A, 37-43: Peter’s First Proclamation of Jesus’ Resurrection: From the beginning, Jesus of Nazareth embodied God’s Holy Spirit of healing the sick and liberating the oppressed. For that, the Romans crucified him (their policy with all rebels). However, three days later, some of us (not all) were privileged to recognize him as still alive during our ritual meals together. Inspired by that experience, we ask you to join us in continuing Jesus’ work of healing and liberation.   

PS 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23: Response to Peter’s Proclamation: Thank you, Divine Mother for this happy day! You have been so good to us, so powerful and unfailingly compassionate. You use the world’s “weakest” to contradict its idea of power. With you, we acknowledge that the “weakest” are actually the strongest. Thank you, again!

COL 3: 1-4: Where God’s Holy Spirit Is Found: Yes, our Easter faith is that the Holy Spirit is found in the sick, the oppressed, in those executed by the state, and in those the world despises. Realizing this truth represents OUR resurrection! Let’s keep our eyes on the prize – the ultimate triumph promised us by the example of Jesus (and Jose Mujica).

Easter Sequence: On Death Row and in Drug Addicts: Thank you, Divine Mother, for contradicting the world’s judgment that the poor and despised (like Jesus on death row or drug addicts today) are somehow sinful. In fact, the supreme victim of empire’s capital punishment has proved more immortal than Rome itself. Jesus lives; Rome is all but forgotten! We can’t even find his tomb or decaying body. Help us, Divine Mother, to synchronize our lives’ energies with those of our Master.

John 20: 1-9: And in Female Leadership: Jesus’ beloved and dearest disciple, Mary Magdalen, achieved full enlightenment when everyone else was in dark mourning over Jesus’ death. Three days later, on visiting Jesus’ tomb, she realized that his True Self was not even there! So, she (even as a woman without standing before the law!) became the first to recognize what later was called Jesus’ “resurrection.” Meanwhile, Peter, “the first pope,” was slower than others to accept what Mary saw immediately. She (the despised) rather than the men, was the first truly enlightened follower of Jesus. As the Master himself said (in the Gospel of Thomas) she rather than Peter should be recognized as the “apostle of apostles.”

Conclusion

Today’s readings along with Chasing the Scream and its story of Jose Mujica invite readers to imagine a world turned upside-down — where death and burial do not have the final word — where prisoners are freed and those the world writes off as dead return to fullness of life. In our world torn apart by a futile drug war, the readings can call us to imagine a human community where those sick with addiction are treated as human beings instead of being criminalized. In the spirit of Easter, that would be a resurrected 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 liberated 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 baby jails and 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 re-channeled to help the merely 10% percent of drug users whose habits are 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. It would truly be an Easter event.