Chasing the scream is an insightful and thought provoking book on the origin and continuation of the drug war. This is a topic long over-due for discussion. Whilst we are pouring more and more resources into ending the ‘drug’ war’ has anyone stopped to ask if we are even winning? Is there an end in sight?
Ironically the drug war was born on the back on the failure of alcohol prohibition in the 1930’s. Once alcohol was made legal again several government departments realized they were out of business. Ignoring the entire medical and scientific establishment of the time, a small federal department was determined to outlaw all drugs in order to justify its existence. How it did this is illuminating and reveals the precarious foundations our drug war stands on. The push to make drugs, particularly marijuana, illegal occurred at the same time that the white establishment were getting nervous about the black population in the USA. ‘Chasing the scream’ makes it clear that by making marijuana illegal it would give the federal government and police a new mechanism to control and suppress the rights of it’s black citizens. This was the initial intent of outlawing marijuana.
The books real power is in exploring the effects of the drug laws on individuals. The sheer misery and pointlessness of drug prohibition is brought home through powerful interviews that Hari conducts with its victims. Particularly shocking is the system in Arizona that basically tortures and humiliates anyone found in possession of illegal drugs. Prisoners are kept in an open air ‘tent prison’ akin to a Concentration Camp. Hari looks closely at these prisoners and finds that the majority have severe and prolonged mental health problems, grew up in care homes, suffered severe abuse and trauma and used drugs as the only method available to them to numb their suffering.
How America treats it’s incarcerated citizens has never made me more grateful for the European Court of Human Rights, which at least legislates that prisoners should be treated with humanity and dignity.
But in America when you have committed a ‘crime’ all of your rights as a human being are terminated. The book details the cruelty of a broken system that abuses and tortures already broken people.
I am pro-marijuana legalization (strictly regulated) but after reading this book I am more favorable to decriminalization of all drugs. There are two sections that really convinced me of this. One where Hari examines the rise of drug cartels in Mexico and the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal.
It’s always amazing to me how American media completely ignores what is happening on its doorstep. The only solution offered to the growing and alarming rise of extreme drug-related crime in Mexico is to build a really big wall. Drug cartels rule and dominate Mexico through fear and terror. There are simply no limits to the atrocities the cartels will commit in order to protect their multi-billion dollar business. Examine the situation in Mexico and it will become clear who is winning the drug war.
Hari then examines the complete opposite in Portugal. By the 1980’s Portugal had one of the worst heroin problems in the world. The government responded according to the drug war rulebook; crimination, crackdowns and punishment. They were surprised to see the problem get worse. A task force looked at it from a different angle and saw that the majority of drug users didn’t have a problem, used for pleasure and didn’t go on to become addicts. They decided that this group needed safety advice and could be left alone. It wasn’t worth the police time to persecute them. In 2001 they then decided to treat problem drug use as a health problem rather than a criminal one. By decriminalizing drug use they put all of the resources they saved into education and treatment. What is crucial to understand about this policy is they didn’t just decriminalize all drugs and let people get on with it; they created an alternative system that focused on prevention, education and treatment. They could do this because of the resources they saved in criminalizing people. The policy goes even further, it helps addicts re-build their lives and become functioning members of society again. The government offers hefty tax breaks to anyone who employs a recovering addict for more than a year. Imagine that? In America once you have a drug conviction it’s almost impossible to get a job, a college loan, and housing. What avenues are left for an addict, but crime, under these conditions?
As thought provoking, as this book is it does have some major flaws. I was pleased that Hari focuses on feelings and emotions of addicts as one of the primary motivators of addiction. Particularly a lack of belonging or connection as exemplified by Dr. Gabor Mate’s work. However he completely ignores the abundant research that also demonstrates that genetics also plays a huge part. Further exploration of addiction that as a primary, chronic and progressive mid-brain illness would have given the book more substance. Equally, there is some naivety in believing that legalizing all drugs and putting the money into prevention and treatment will solve the problem. Our global drug problem is complex. I do however support the theory that what we are currently doing is not working and I think ‘Chasing the Scream’ is a good start to an important discussion.
Throughout my career I have always been asked about what I think about drug legislation and I’ve always replied it’s not a question of if, but when. We are beginning to see that in the US, with several states now legalizing marijuana growth and use. The results of these experiments I think will spur on further legislation and decimalization of drugs. However it’s important we follow the ‘Washington’ model rather than the Colorado model of legalization. The Colorado model was based on legalizing Marijuana because it is less dangerous than alcohol. Where as in Washington state, the push to change the laws around marijuana use were driven by the recognition that the laws themselves caused more harm, and took resources away from prosecuting people who caused real harm to society. They recognized that Marijuana is not a ‘safe drug’ and shouldn’t be presented as such and it is for this very reason that is should be made legal and then be regulated. Just like Portugal the campaign focused on then re-directing the resources saved on marijuana prosecution and the tax revenue it brought in from legal sales to education, prevention and treatment. This is a pathway to marijuana legalization I can support.
I also wish Hari had explored the prescription drug epidemic in America and the role of pharmaceutical companies in creating the problem. He points out that the addiction problem caused by over prescription of opiates really starts when users legal supply is cut off and they are forced to transfer to cheaper heroin on the black market. However he doesn’t go into how pharmaceutical companies helped cause this problem in the first place.
Overall I found this a fascinating book and would recommend it to anyone who despairs of our current system that is inherently racist and targets the poor, mentally ill and damaged members of our society. What is clear is we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing to address the epidemic of addiction in our culture.
As Hari puts it:
“Prohibition, doesn’t stop the problem, it simply piles another series of disasters onto the already-existing disaster of drug use. In this argument we are all anti-drug. The only difference is between prohibitionists who believe the tragedy of drug use can be dealt with by more jail cells in California and more military jeeps on the streets of Juarez, and the reformers who believe the tragedy of drug use can be dealt by moving those funds to educate kids and treat addicts.”
This really sums up how I feel. I am anti-drugs; I am anti anyone taking drugs. The risk of harm is too great. But I am also anti how we are addressing the problem currently. We just can’t keep criminalizing drug users when the resources could be used instead to help them instead.