Growing up in the 80s in the northeast of America my afterschool TV viewing was filled with anti-drug and ‘Just Say No’ campaign commercials. Nancy Reagan appeared on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ to warn the children and shake their hands. Punky and Cherie were offered drugs by “cool girl” gang the Chicklets on the show ‘Punky Brewster.’ Jessie became a caffeine pill popper on ‘Saved by the Bell.’ I was inundated with fear surrounding drug use and drug dealers. Maybe the messages affected me or maybe they didn’t, but I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my life. The main reasons for this are probably more to do with lack of exposure (I’ve always been the geeky bookish boy who has only been offered illegal substances a handful of times) and fear of addiction. I have quite an obsessive personality so have tried to steer clear of overindulging in things like drinking, gambling or eating Circus Peanuts – all of which I’ve binged on when given the chance. My personal opinion on the drug war has been that it’s an insolvable hopeless battle. With the factors of high-profits and addictive chemicals there will always be drug pushers and drug users. I’ve felt there’s no alternative but to continue the fight in the same way it has been conducted for the past one hundred years. Reading “Chasing the Scream” I was surprised to learn about this war’s real origins and that my assumptions about addiction and addicts were ridiculously simplistic. This book shows the true historical complexity of this issue, the reason why the war on drugs has failed so abysmally and why legislative change and support for addicts is necessary.

Johann Hari recounts the stories of many people involved in the war on drugs over time from the initial days of the criminalization of marijuana to its most recent legalization in the states of Washington and Colorado. These individuals encompass a wide socio-economic range and hold a diverse spectrum of opinions about drugs. They include heads of state, governmental officials, community activists, gang members, addicts, scientists and health professionals. It’s incredibly engaging how these oftentimes harrowing and remarkable personal stories take you into heart of the battle to show the real individuals who are affected by the war on drugs. Their experiences often change their own opinions about the way it should be fought and say something significant about how we perceive the drug war.

The person of most significance with the longest-lasting impact was Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who pumped up his department’s usefulness after the end of Prohibition in the 1930s by spreading fear about the evils of drug use. Many of his arguments were indelibly linked with racial prejudice and played upon white America’s discomfort about racial minorities becoming more integrated in their communities. As Hari explains, because Anslinger’s messages to the public connected addiction with “Negro people… He could wage the drug war – he could do what he did – only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of race panic.” The war on drugs in America and many other countries has continued to be closely connected with racial prejudice ever since. Much later in the book he explains how a lawyer who was a fervent advocate of ‘Just Say No’ realized she was “acting as part of a racist machine, against her own intentions.” She later went on to become a strong campaigner for the legalization of marijuana. It’s particularly fascinating and tragic the way that the author explains how the singer Billie Holiday was hounded and used by Anslinger as a public personality that needed to be made an example of.

A 1980s public service announcement by Pee Wee Herman about crack cocaine.

After reading the many stories Hari recounts and well-researched points he makes it seem astoundingly clear why the war on drugs has failed. He sums it up most succinctly here: “Prohibition – this policy I have traced across continents and across a century – consists of endlessly spreading downward spirals. People get addicted so we humiliate and shame them until they become more addicted. They then have to feed their habit by persuading more people to buy the drugs from them and become addicted in turn. Then those people need to be humiliated and shamed. And so it goes, on and on.” It’s a horrific cycle that needs to stop and one important way we need to begin is with how we perceive addicts. So often we’re inclined to judge people who are addicted to drugs as being at fault when really the cause of their addiction is due to deeper internal issues rather than poor will power or even chemical dependency. Hari eloquently explains how contrary to popular belief “addiction isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you – it’s the cage you live in.”

The debate over whether to legalize drugs is complicated and difficult. But look: prisons are overflowing, society-scorned addicts are dying because they don’t really know what they’re putting in their bodies from dodgy sources and increasing amounts of money is spent on law enforcement chasing drug gangs which are only renewed as soon as they are shut down. Of course drug use can’t ever be fully eradicated, but it can be so better managed and controlled. Hari admits that “Legalization slightly increases drug use – but it significantly reduces drug harms.” It’s vital to understand that proper regulation and overseeing of distribution by medical professionals is so much better than leaving it to gangs who control the monopoly. “Chasing the Scream” is such a well-researched, powerfully-told and convincingly-argued book that shows why the present laws, bloody battles and villainization of addicts needs to change.

The book also has an interactive and informative website:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohann Hari