Johann Hari

Chasing the Scream

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Chasing the Scream Summary

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Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is a broad historical survey on the United States’ criminalization and misinformation campaign against drugs. Its author, English journalist Johann Hari, published the book both in the United States and in England, which has gone through a similar (though smaller-scale) public health, media, and policy crisis. Its release in 2015 marked the centennial anniversary of a landmark drug law called the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which was the United States’ first attempt to regulate drugs on a federal level. Hari argues that this act instigated the “War on Drugs” that would outlast World War I by a century, and equates the two wars in their scale, impact, and destruction to global health and justice.

In the book’s introduction, Hari recalls one of his most formative and traumatizing memories. When he was a young child, he ended up alone with a relative who overdosed on drugs. After failing to wake them, he felt guilty and powerless. As an adult, he has abused anti-narcolepsy drugs, which helped him feel alert and powerful. His childhood experiences and his own abuses of drugs have caused him to see addicts and recovering people as a “tribe,” to which he belongs. Still, Hari is unsure of whether to classify himself as a drug addict. Part of the book endeavors to articulate what a drug addict actually is, independent of the stigma and misinformation attached to drugs in modern life. This problem involves questions including whether one’s behavior determines or confirms one’s addiction, and what happens when a new policy changes the norms around drug use.

During his research process, Hari traveled thousands of miles between countries that have different histories of drug use (and abuse), different norms, and different laws. His locations included the United States, Canada, Portugal, Mexico, Uruguay, Switzerland, Sweden, and Vietnam. During his travels, he studied prominent figures involved in the psychosocial tradition of drugs, whether by virtue of their art practice (such as Billie Holiday, the jazz musician), or legislation (such as Harry Anslinger, who led the first iteration of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the United States). Hari expertly shows that drugs have touched everyone: Holiday suffered from heroin addiction, and Anslinger abused morphine even as he worked to suppress the drug trade. Hari also researched notorious figures such as Arnold Rothstein, one of the first large-scale drug traffickers.

In his travels, Hari was fortunate to interview several important living figures in the history of drug law. These include Steve Rolles and Danny Kushlick, two of the most well-known advocates of reform. Aside from the expertise of activists, politicians, and scientists, he also includes interviews from people who are in immediate contact with drug use and its impacts, including dealers, law enforcement officers, and addiction specialists. His interview of João Goulão, the national drug coordinator for Portugal, illuminates the drug trade’s complexity from a science and policy perspective, as well as a perspective of compassion for people who suffer needlessly.

Hari strays away from endorsing any particular theory or judgment about the drug world, aiming instead to construct an empirical survey that amplifies the voices of the drug world’s many stakeholders. He does, however, pay special attention to the sociologist Bruce K. Alexander, whose hypotheses on deviant behavior led to the famous “Rat Park” experiments in the 1970s. Alexander believed that drugs were not inherently addiction causing; rather, the contexts and norms in which they are couched determine whether, and how, they are ultimately used. At the end of his book, Hari drives home the fact that an overabundance of evidence shows that the messages pushed by the War on Drugs are sorely out of touch with reality. He hopes that empirical research and social activism will shift America and the rest of the world into a new sociological paradigm about drugs and end the destructive century-long war.