Chasing The Scream
by Johann Hari
Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari came out in 2015. It was the inspiration for the Hulu movie Billie Holiday vs The United States. Hari questions whether or not he is an addict and decides to go searching for answers to questions he has. “Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue? Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can’t? What really causes addiction? What happens if you choose a radically different policy?”
Hari spent the next three years in search of answers, traveling across nine countries including: The United States, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Uruguay and Vietnam.
The book begins with Henry Anslinger, who began the War The On Drugs. Anslinger ran The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the DEA. The Bureau was originally set up to bust bootleggers during the Prohibition, but once Alcohol became legal again, Anslinger turned his attention to drugs. He targeted Billie Holiday, who had a well known Heroin habit. Hari sees Anslinger as a hypocrite with some misguided notions. It seems that Anslinger was more motivated to stay in business and keep his job then he was to truly end addiction. In fact, Anslinger would later develop his own Morphine habit.
The repercussions of prohibiting drugs were bad. Outlawing them created more problems than it solved. It drove thousands upon thousands of people to break the law in order to feed their addiction. It drove the business of dealing drugs to the mafia, to cartels and to gangs instead of letting doctors prescribe drugs legally. The War on Drugs created more crime instead of preventing it. For over 50 years the government struggled to keep drugs off the street, but the zero tolerance approached failed miserably.
In recent years, countries around the world began to ease their restrictions on drugs and started legalizing them. Places like the Netherlands and Portugal have seen a sharp drop in crime as soon as they stopped throwing people in jail for doing drugs. Once the governments began to regulate the flow of drugs, clinics replaced jails. Freely given assistance began to help the people in need and life improved greatly in those countries. The United States has slowly followed suit with a number of states legalizing marijuana, but we still have a long way to go.
As many as 90% of people out there have tried drugs, but only 10% of them will develop a long term habit or an addiction. While there is a chemical component to addiction, chemicals do not actually hijack our brain. Addiction is more psychological than physiological. The truth is addiction is adaption to external factors in life. It is not a character flaw or a weakness or a disease. It is not you, but the cage you live in.
The number one predictor of addiction is not genetics or personality, but childhood trauma. Childhood abuse and neglect increases the likelihood of addiction. Addiction is often born out of loneliness. If someone has strong family support or a close knit community they can rely on, they are less likely to become addicts.
When we punish those who do drugs, we isolate and alienate them and that only makes it worse. The current system of dealing with addiction is broken and downright backward. Negative consequences do not deter those who seek refuge in various illegal substances. Punishment, which includes shaming them, putting them in cages and making them unemployable, traps them in their addictions.
Hari comes to the compassionate conclusion that legalization is the best way to deal with drugs. People are going to do drugs no matter what, why not make it safe and secure for them? Why not give them the tools to help themselves rather than destroy their lives? Recovery from drug addiction must be a Social Recovery. It is not up to the individual to be strong all on their own. We need to create safe spaces for those who are struggling and provide support, not punishment. We must change how society treats drug addiction and drugs.