Book review: Chasing the Scream

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on DrugsChasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The War on Drugs has been in existence for decades. Thousands of people – if not millions – have died as a result of the prosecution of this war. But we’re never allowed, really, to question the success or the basic justice of such an event: drugs are bad, right?

Well now.

Johann Hari’s book is a death blow to the idea of a justice-driven war on drugs, one that stretches back to 1914. The first chapter alone – which contains thumbnail sketches of anti-drugs campaigner Harry Anslinger, crime figure Arnold Rothstein, and addict Billie Holiday, figures that will reappear throughout – will make you irate. The treatment of addicts, the power ceded to crime interestes and the myopic application of government power are breathtaking.

The book charts how Anslinger’s selectively-supported stance against drugs – racist in basis – would be foisted upon other countries, with economic sanctions the iron fist in the velvet glove of public health. It shows how throughout, dissenting opinion – and successful public health prescription – was quashed, by force or intimidation, and how the vast majorities of deaths in the process have been those of bystanders, whether by cartel or by institutional forces.

The violence in this book is terrifying. There’s things you believe you know – hey, we’ve all seen Scarface, right? We know about drug rings and organised crime? – but hearing stories of mentally ill prisoners being cooked to death in exposed cells in the US, or hearing how foreign governments cowed by dealers allow dissenters to be killer, or hearing about how children become killers for either a way out of poverty or because there’s no choice if they wish to survive? It’s terrifying. Learning that the bases for this century-old battle are fundamentally bullshit? Yeah, now you’re getting it.

The most successful part of the book for me is the inclusion of individual stories. There’s a lot of zoomed-out detail, covered terrain, but when Hari focuses on an individual: a gang leader, the mother of a killed son, a policewoman with a reason to bust addicts – that’s where his writing shines. You will be sickened at both the tragedy of the lives on the page, but on the endless bureaucracy and protection of personal fiefdoms which allows it to continue.

There’s a lot of supporting material available for this book, both in the references section and on a supporting website. I assume this is due to Hari’s plagiarism scandal, where he had previously passed off interviewees’ earlier quotes as quotes made in his own interviews. The details may be read here, and I think it informs the reasoning behind making all recorded interview materials available on the book’s website: it shows there’s nothing being fabricated, and that any inferences are drawn upon solid information. It’s a reassuring addition to an already convincing book.

To underscore how much of what we’re told is misleading, there’s even a test you may take to see what you know about the War on Drugs. How addictive is crack, anyway?

Chasing the Scream is something special: a well-considered call to action, with compassion at its core. Yes, what’s suggested would require change. But what if that switch in mindset saves as much lives as the current, ineffective process has cost? Surely that would be worth it?

My Goodreads profile is here.

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