Book Reviews

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

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Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

This is possibly the best book I have read on the “Drug War” and its consequences. Hari traces the very beginnings of our current mess to an original drug czar, Harry Anslinger. This man's background, methods, and beliefs drove him to extraordinary actions that still to this day haunt not only the USA drug policy, but also that of the so called developed world too. I considered my self fairly up on the entire area of our drug policy and related but this book continually pointed out to me how complicated and devious the “science”, drug policy, history, and related topics really are. I cannot recommend a better, more important book to be read by all. I will guarantee it contains many gems of knowledge that should shake our own long held beliefs and, hopefully lead to significant change in our laws, treatment programs, and viewpoints.

This drug war was, from the very beginning, heavily rooted in racism using fear to produce actions that were far from scientific or rational. From those early days what we now call hard drugs were commonly prescribed by most doctors but Anslinger was able to demonize drugs so thoroughly that doctors who continued to espouse the truth were forced out of the national picture. His success was largely based upon painting the drugs as able to turn Blacks into super strong criminals that were next to impossible to stop from rampaging through white lives. Harry told the public that “the increase in drug addiction is practically 100 per cent among Negro people,” which he stressed was terrifying because already “the Negro population... accounts for 10% of the total population, but 60% of the addicts.” Harry's rise to incredible power came in the form of a race panic.

During this time the NY Times ran a story of a supposed North Carolina chief of police who was faced with a normally “inoffensive negro” who was “running amuck” in a cocaine frenzy trying to stab a storekeeper. The chief knew that he must kill this man or be killed himself. He drew his revolver and placed the muzzle over the Negro's heart firing. “...But the shot did not even stagger the man.” In the press at the time it was common to claim that cocaine turned blacks into superhuman hulks who could take bullets to the heart without flinching. This common story was the official reason police across the nation increased the caliber of their guns. Part of the game was to make cocaine the reason for black anger (as opposed to lack of basic rights) thus the importance of removing this white powder returning blacks to a docile state and put them on their knees again. See any connections with today's beliefs?

The opponents to Harry's warped views of people and of drug addiction would pour out study after study showing the fairly well known science of addiction but Harry would counter them with anecdotes, almost always sexual. But Harry was able to convince enough key people that drugs had to be outlawed. And therein lies one of the great truths of this book: When a popular product is criminalized, it does not disappear. Instead criminals start to control the supply and sale of the product.`These criminals have to control the product from its sources to the end users. It is a terribly vulnerable supply line and the only way it can be protected is with violence. And the rise of this violence, driven by the incredible profits, becomes the source of all kinds of death and destruction normally not seen in “normal” criminal activity. Fear must be paramount to prevent others from taking over the trade. Of course, this gets so bad that even governments are taken over. The current Mexican government uses our weapons to kill its own people as corruption prevents any real police force from actually threatening the money generated. Of course, Afghanistan is also notorious for drug connections at the highest levels. And the USA is certainly not immune...

Just one part of this whole scene is the fact that once you are busted for a drug offense at age 15 or 17 or 20 you are virtually unemployable for the rest of your life. You will never get a student loan, you will be evicted from public housing, you will be barred from even visiting such housing, and, if you get busted for drugs and visit your family in public housing the entire family can be kicked out. Such violators are stripped of most all of their rights, to include voting rights, all because at some point in their lives they possessed drugs.

According to a United Nations Office on Drug Control only 10% of drug users have a problem with their substance. 90% are able to live normal lives w/o harm. William Bennett, the most aggressive drug Czar in US history, admits: “Non-addicted users still comprise the vast bulk of our drug-involved population”. Both of these claims fly in the face of what the majority of Americans have been “taught”.

This is just my feeble attempt to convey some of what is in this book. Lots more on the nature of addiction which runs counter to what most Americans believe is the science involved. The author was able to interact with many different groups within the drug culture and give all kinds of examples of places/times which provide real insight to the direction solutions lie. Portugal, for instance, has moved well away from the driving forces involved and has seen a significant drop in deaths, crime etrc.

The Swiss found that the drug war means disorder while ending the drug war means restoring order. The author has many detailed examples from all over the world of this basic tenet and more...


Steve Horn