Book Club: Should Even Heroin Be Legal?

It’s time for our first selection of 2015: Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, which you can buy here in hardcover and here for the e-version. From the publisher’s description:

It is now 100 years since drugs were first banned [in the US by the Harrison Act]. On the eve of this centenary, journalist chasing-screamJohann Hari set off on an epic three-year, 30,000-mile journey into the war on drugs to uncover its secrets – and he found that there is a startling gap between what we have been told and what is really going on. As strange as it may seem at first, drugs are not what we have been told they are; addiction is not what we think it is; and the drug war has very different motives to the ones we have seen on our TV screens.

In Chasing the Scream, Hari reveals his startling discoveries entirely through the true and shocking stories of people across the world whose lives have been transformed by this war. They range from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn searching for her mother, to a teenage hit-man in Mexico searching for a way out. It begins with Hari’s discovery that at the birth of the drug war, Billie Holiday was stalked and killed by the man who launched this crusade – while it ends with the story of a brave doctor [in Portugal] who has led his country to decriminalize every drug, from cannabis to crack, with remarkable results.

Miranda Collinge of Esquire calls the book a “fascinating, extensively researched and heartfelt contribution to a debate over drugs policy that continues to rage today”:

It’s a pattern Hari observes again and again through the decades: a zealous, misguided or sometimes deeply prejudiced person in power decides to eradicate the social blight of drugs, forcing, even offering, the drugs trade to criminals, while the hopeless and the helpless are caught in the crossfire. He meets scientists, counsellors, addicts and dealers who point out the folly of this approach, which he backs up with studies of murder rates, the workings of the human brain and, particularly memorably, self-fellating rats.

bookclub-beagle-trJohann has a hard time writing a bad sentence. I’ll be up-front bout my friendship with him, which is deep. He made some mistakes in the past, for which I think this book is by far the best atonement. It’s very hard to put down, and it offers a series of gripping narratives about this blight on our world – not of drugs, but of the failed “war” on them.

By the way, Johann will be in DC talking about his book at Politics and Prose on January 29, then in NYC at the 92nd Street Y on the 30th, then in Baltimore at Red Emma’s on the 4th of February. He’s even more engaging in person than in prose.

Pete Guither of DrugWarRant “highly recommends” Chasing the Scream:

… I’ve read so much about the war on drugs that it’s hard to get excited about reading a book about it. But less than halfway through the first chapter, I couldn’t put it down – it’s an amazing read. … For drug policy experts like me, it’s a great read with some fascinating personal perspectives, while filling in a few historical knowledge gaps.

Decca Aitkenhead is also impressed by the book:

[Johann] has never spoken publicly about [his plagiarism scandal from 2011] until now. My other worry was whether johann-hari-680x1024anyone would want to read yet another polemic about drugs. I wouldn’t, and I’m quite interested in the subject. The prohibition-versus-legalisation debate tends to be interminably dreary, chiefly because neither side ever seems to change anybody’s mind.

“I think that’s totally right,” Hari agrees. “I did not want to write a 400-page polemic about the drug war. I didn’t want to have an argument about it, I wanted to understand it.” For that matter, he admits, “It’s struck me that, actually, polemic very rarely changes people’s minds about anything.” He says so as a former columnist? “A recovering former columnist, yes.” He laughs. “It’s not just that polemic doesn’t change people’s minds. It says nothing about the texture of lived experience. People are complex and nuanced, they don’t live polemically.”

Hari’s book turns out to be a page-turner, full of astonishing revelations.

I had no idea that the war on drugs was single-handedly invented by a racist ex-prohibition agent [in the US], who needed to find a new problem big enough to protect his departmental budget. One of the first victims of his ambition was Billie Holiday, whose heroin addiction enraged him to the point where he hounded her to death. After he’d had the singer jailed for drugs, she was stripped of her performing licence, and as she unravelled into destitution and despair, his agents continued to harass her, even summoning a grand jury to indict her as she lay dying under police guard in a hospital bed.

Politico published a long passage of the chapter on Holiday:

Narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed and said they had found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in a tinfoil envelope. They claimed it was hanging on a nail on the wall, six feet from the bottom of her bed—a spot Billie was incapable of reaching. They summoned a grand jury to indict her, telling her that unless she disclosed her dealer, they would take her straight to prison. They confiscated her comic books, radio, record player, flowers, chocolates and magazines, handcuffed her to the bed and stationed two policemen at the door. They had orders to forbid any visitors from coming in without a written permit, and her friends were told there was no way to see her. Her friend Maely Dufty screamed at them that it was against the law to arrest somebody who was on the critical list. They explained that the problem had been solved: they had taken her off the critical list.

So now, on top of the cirrhosis of the liver, Billie went into heroin withdrawal, alone.

Her NYT obituary from July 1959 is here. As far as Johann’s credibility with the book, Malcolm Forbes is more than assured:

Given that he devotes his last 70 pages to detailed notes with sources and a lengthy bibliography, it seems a safe bet to say we can [trust the book]. (There is even a link to audio recordings of the quotes that appear within the book, along with the invitation to email Hari with any errors found.)

Meanwhile, The Guardian‘s Ed Vulliamy scrutinizes the book from the far left:

Legalisation would no doubt suit places such as Vancouver, New York or Liverpool. But how would it work in wretched barrios around the cities of central and South America, townships of Africa and eventually dormitory towns of China and Bangladesh? Hari insists that “responsible drug use is the norm, not the exception”. He reports a UN statistic that “only 10% of drug users have a problem with their substance. Some 90% of people who use a drug – the overwhelming majority – are not harmed by it.” But this is not the whole story in the desperately poor, wider world that services the countries where Hari’s book is set. …

Because if hard drugs are legal, who is going to make them? Presumably the experts who already do, working not for narco syndicates but Big Pharma, another kind of cartel. And do we really trust Big Pharma to manufacture methamphetamine and process crack or heroin in order to sell as little as possible in the developing world? That’s not how Big Pharma works; that’s not how capitalism works.

And from the right-wing Spectator, Duncan Fallowell:

Hari also blames Washington for the horrific battles between drug gangs in Latin America and the Caribbean. But non-prohibition is no guarantee of peace and harmony. Look at the merciless gang wars in central Africa over precious stones and metals. And prohibition can be a vital tool: against illegal logging in the Amazon for example, or the slaughter of elephants.

He says the war against drugs has been going on for a century and is still not won, so it’s been pointless. Some wars are eternal and to expect otherwise is utopianism — the war against weeds, for example, which is called gardening. The war on drugs can be called public health. One of Hari’s own informers raises this: ‘We need to approach drug addiction not as a criminal justice situation but as a public health situation.’

That indeed is how it is regarded. Criminal prohibition was never considered enough in itself, even to the most rigorous Washington hardliner. It should be noted that liberalisation has already begun in some US states and that the world’s harshest anti-drug laws — by far — are in Muslim and Asian countries, which Hari ignores.

John Harris calls the book “important and largely convincing” but still had mixed feelings about it:

Chasing the Scream is a powerful contribution to an urgent debate, but this is its central problem: in contrast to the often brutal realities it describes, it uses the gauche journalistic equivalent of the narrative voice found in Mills & Boon novels. Amid Mexican sand dunes, he tells us, Hari thought about the drug wars’ endless downsides as he “ran my fingers through the prickly hot white sand” and crassly imagined the joyous lives of local teenagers in a world free of gangsters (“Juan, stripped of his angel wings, is chatting with Rosalio about World of Warcraft”).

Barbara Spindel points to the personal nature of the book:

Hari notes at the outset that he has been close to several addicts — that they “feel like my tribe, my group, my people” — and he confesses that, while not narcoleptic, he for years took “fistfuls” of narcolepsy pills because they enabled him to write for weeks without rest. He structures the book as a personal journey, weighing the pros and cons of legalization himself as he presents them to his readers. … “Chasing the Scream” is a riveting book, and Hari is an effective storyteller; he would have been better off keeping the focus off of himself and entirely on Chino, Rosalio and the others.

David Robinson credits Johann for “talk[ing] to some truly amazing people in the three years he spent researching this book,” but Robinson had qualms about its conclusions:

[Johann’s] 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.

The Dish will be debating such questions starting in mid-February. To join the conversation, buy the book at this link (if you’d like to help out the Dish with a little affiliate revenue) and email your thoughts to