The week of June 14, 2015

Why the war on drugs was always destined to fail

By Jesse Hicks

When British writer and journalist Johann Hari set out to understand the modern era of drug prohibition, which began in 1914 in the United States and has now gone on for over a century, he quickly realized he would need a truly global perspective. A well-known columnist for a lefty newspaper and the Huffington Post until charges of plagiarism and Wikipedia vandalism forced him into professional exile, Hari threw himself into his comeback work, spending years interviewing people around the world. The result is Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, a book-length argument for lifting the century-long prohibition on drug use.

Chasing the Scream comes to some very radical conclusions, arguing that the global war on drugs is based on across-the-board misunderstandings of addiction, addicts, and the history of drug use. How did you you decide to write this book?

One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. As I got older, I realized why: We had addiction in my family.Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 22.27.04

It is now 100 years since the war on drugs began in the United States and Britain, and it was then gradually imposed on the rest of the world. As this centenary approached, I realized there were lots of really basic questions I didn’t know the answer to. Why were drugs banned in the first place? Why does this war continue when so many of us think it doesn’t work? What really causes drug use and addiction? And what are the alternatives?

I went on a 30,000-mile journey across nine countries, and I met an amazing range of people—from a transgendered crack dealer in Brooklyn, to a scientist who feeds hallucinogens to mongooses, to the killing fields of Ciudad Juarez, to the only country to ever decriminalize all drugs.

What I found is that almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The drug war is not what we have been shown on our TV screens for a century. And the alternatives are not what we think they are.

What do most people not know about the origins of the drug war?

I open the book with the story of how Harry Anslinger—the founder of the modern war on drugs—stalked and killed Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer. I think it tells you a lot about what the drug war was about from the start.

In 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage on New York City and sang the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”—and that night, Anslinger’s men ordered her to stop singing the song. It seems like an odd thing for the drug police to be doing, and an odd place to start the book—but I think it is crucial.

Anslinger took over the Department of Prohibition in the U.S. just as alcohol prohibition was ending, so he had a huge government department with nothing to do. He had to find it a new purpose—and he was driven by two intense hatreds: of addicts and of African-Americans.

Drugs were not banned because somebody sat down and figured out rationally that this was the best way to reduce their harms. No—instead, there was a great hysteria in the U.S., stoked by Anslinger, claiming that African-Americans and Latinos were taking drugs, “forgetting their place,” and attacking white people. He tapped into a deep, underlying hatred, and channelled it through his department.

“Most people can see the war on drugs has failed, but they haven’t been persuaded of the case for the alternatives yet—and I think we need to do that job better.”

The war on drugs was a way of attacking African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, and keeping them down. This is why Billie Holiday—a proud African-American woman—was a symbol of everything Anslinger hatred. When Billie Holiday insisted on her right to sing her anti-racist song, Anslinger used her heroin addiction as a pretext to stalk her and eventually to cause her death—in a really shocking way that I tell in the book. I interviewed the last living person who was in the room when Anslinger’s men were effectively killing Billie.

By comparison, when Anslinger found out a white star, Judy Garland, was also a heroin addict, he advised her to take longer vacations and reassured the studios she was going to be fine.

This racist dynamic continues in the war on drugs right to the present day—in the U.S., and across the world—as the book shows. This story isn’t over.

You also lay out some of what you consider to be misconceptions about addiction. Why do we—collectively, it seems—so misunderstand addiction?  

Of all the things I learned about in my research, it was the discoveries about addiction that most surprised me.

I assumed—like almost everyone else—that drug addiction is caused by the chemicals in the drugs themselves. This is a simple and obvious story, and it seems like common sense.

We think that if you and me and the next 20 people to walk past your window all used (say) heroin together for 20 days, on day 21, we will all be heroin addicts. This is because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our bodies would start to physically crave. We would physically need it. That is what we think addiction is. That’s certainly what I believed.

The first thing that alerted me to the fact that there is something wrong with this story is when it was explained to me by doctors that if I get hit by a car and break my hip, I will be taken to hospital, and I will be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It is much stronger heroin than addicts buy on the streets, because it hasn’t been contaminated by dealers. Anyone reading this who has had a hip operation has taken a lot of heroin.

If what we think about addiction is right, what should happen? Those people—at least some of them—should become addicts. This has been very closely  studied, and it doesn’t happen.

Anyone reading this who has had a hip operation has taken a lot of heroin.”

When I found this out, I was really puzzled—it seemed so strange I only began to understand it when I interviewed Professor Bruce Alexander in Vancouver.

He explained to me that the theory of addiction we take for granted comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They are very simple. You take a rat and you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself by overdosing quite quickly.

So that is our theory of addiction.

But in the 1970s, Professor Alexander looked at these experiments and noticed the rat has nothing to do except use these drugs. So he built a very different cage, called Rat Park. It is basically heaven for rats. They have nice food and colored balls and lots of friends and can have lots of sex—and they have both water bottles, normal water and drugged water.

But this is the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use it. None use it compulsively; none ever overdose.

There are many human examples and stories I discuss in the book showing that this applies to us too—too many to recount here. It tells us lots of profound things about the true nature of addiction.

Addiction is not caused by the drugs themselves. Addiction is caused by a sense of isolation and disconnection in the addict. It’s not the drugs—it’s your cage.

With that understanding, how should we be treating addiction?

At the moment, most of the world takes addicts—who use their drugs to try to blot out their suffering—and we make them suffer more. This isn’t just useless. It actually makes their addictions worse. I went out on a chain-gang of addicted women in Arizona who are forced to sleep in tents, and to go out in public chained to each other, to dig graves and to be jeered at by the public. Is anyone surprised that when they get out, they are even more eager to take drugs to stop their terrible internal pain?

There are countries that are taking the opposite approach.

In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin. Every year they tried the American way—punish more people—and every year the problem got worse. Until finally, one day, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and said, “We can’t go on like this.” So they appointed a scientific panel to go away, look at all the scientific evidence, and figure out what would genuinely solve this problem.

“Wall Street bankers… well, you don’t need me to explain how their lives are stripped of meaning.”

The panel—led by a remarkable man called Dr. Joao Goulao—came back and said: “Decriminalize all drugs, from cannabis to crack. But”—and this was the crucial next step—“take all the money we used to spend on making addicts worse, and spend it instead on turning their lives around.”

Partly this was things like rehab and therapy, but much more than that, it was a program of job creation for addicts. Say you used to be a mechanic, and you developed a drug problem. They will go to a garage and say—if you employ this guy for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 22.19.14

Johann Hari by Simon Emmett

The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning.

It’s been nearly 15 years, and the results are in. Injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Every study shows wider addiction is down, HIV transmission among addicts is massively down, overdose is massively down.

One of the ways you know it’s worked so well is that almost nobody in Portugal wants to go back. I went to interview Joao Figueira, who is the top drug cop in Portugal, and he led the opposition to the decriminalization: He said that it would surely lead to a disaster for the country. And he told me that everything he said would happen didn’t happen—and everything the other side said would happen did come to pass. He talked about how he felt ashamed he had spent two years arresting and harassing drug users, and he now hopes the whole world follows Portugal’s example.

You often return to the point that the social stigma attached to drugs has as much to do with class as with the drugs themselves. After all, before Harry Anslinger, people were perfectly content to buy products containing heroin or cocaine at the neighborhood store, with little moral judgment attached to those chemicals. But today the word “addict” seems applied solely to a certain class of drug user. Do the rich never become addicts?

There’s two very different questions there—do they become addicts, and do they get treated the same as addicts who are poor?

To deal with the first part: Yes, of course, they become addicts. Bruce Alexander’s theory is not about poverty. It is about disconnection. You can be poor and have healthy bonds and a strong group and a deep sense of meaning, and you can be rich and totally cut off from those things.

Think, for example, about Wall Street bankers, or rock stars. They have notoriously high rates of drug addiction. Do they have happy, healthy, connected lives, where they have supporting loving bonds, and a strong sense of a worthwhile life? On the contrary—they are often as disconnected from meaning and a healthy life as somebody in the worst slum. Rock stars can’t even walk down the street and can’t trust anyone around them; Wall Street bankers… well, you don’t need me to explain how their lives are stripped of meaning.

To go to the second question: Are rich addicts treated like addicts in poor neighborhoods? The answer is, of course, no. Think about two people who have been very positive about my book—Elton John and Russell Brand. When they developed serious and life-threatening illnesses, there was no chance they would be sent to prison. They were given love and support and rehabilitation—and went on to make incredible contributions to our culture.

Every addict deserves what Elton and Russell got. They don’t get it. Addicts in poor neighborhoods get shame and stigma and punishment—and in the U.S., Russia, Vietnam and many other places, they get put in hellish and barbaric prisons, where their addictions become even worse.

“The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning.”

Why does this inequality—between how poor addicts get treated, and how rich addicts get treated—happen? Matthew Fogg is one of the most decorated police officers in the United States, responsible for tracking down over 300 of the most-wanted felons in the country—from murderers to rapists to child molesters—but he was bewildered as to why his force only ever goes to black neighborhoods to bust their drug use. He went to see his boss to suggest they start mounting similar raids in white neighborhoods.

His superior officer told him: “Fogg, you know you’re right; they are using drugs there [but] you know what? If we go out and we start targeting those individuals, they know judges, they know lawyers, they know politicians, they know all of the big folks in government. If we start targeting them, and their children, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to get a phone call and they’re going to shut us down. You know that, Fogg? You know what’s going to happen? There goes your overtime. There’s the money that you’re making. So let’s just go after the weakest link. Let’s go after those who can’t afford the attorneys, those who we can lock up.”

A similar conversation is playing out in police stations all over the world.

The drug war, you argue, is now supported by a number of entrenched interests, from dealers (who make money dealing drugs) to police (who are provided money to chase drug dealers) to prisons (funded to house captured drug dealers and users) to politicians (whose “tough on crime” stances often win them support from the voters—us). But there are also moral judgments involved, moral convictions. Is it a war supported by moral convictions or by personal interests?

It’s supported by a complex mixture of forces.

The single biggest force, by far, is public opinion. Most people still believe, broadly, in prohibition, and therefore politicians keep it in place. That’s because people like me haven’t done a good enough job of explaining the problems with prohibition, and why the alternatives are better.

We need to look at the reasons why people support prohibition honestly and respectfully. This is a different debate to (say) the debate about equal rights for gay people. When I argue with homophobes, I do my best to try to persuade them, but ultimately, there is simply a profound difference between us: I believe gay people should be treated the same as everyone else, and they don’t.

The debate about the drug war is a bit different. The main reasons most people give for supporting prohibition are that they don’t want children to use drugs, and they don’t want people to become addicted. Unlike in the debate with homophobes, both sides in the debate about prohibition have shared goals. I also passionately want to reduce addiction and to protect children from drugs.

This isn’t, in the main, a debate about goals. It is a debate about how to achieve those goals. I think the evidence is pretty clear that regulation is a better way to achieve those goals than prohibition—for reasons I hope become clear in the book. But we haven’t made that case clearly enough to people. Most people can see the war on drugs has failed, but they haven’t been persuaded of the case for the alternatives yet—and I think we need to do that job better, by showing people what has really happened in the places that have chosen the alternatives, and why those reforms are so popular there.

There are, of course, in addition, forces that profit from the way things are today—the biggest by far is organized crime, but there’s also the prison industry, certain parts of the police, and so on. That’s real, but I wouldn’t want to overstate it—the biggest job is shifting public opinion.

As to whether it is sustained by moral beliefs, there are some people, it is true, who believe that intoxication itself is immoral, that “dulling your senses” is a terrible thing to do. But every human society ever known has sought out intoxicants and used them recreationally; it doesn’t seem to me to be immoral. For 90 percent of users, it’s just fun.

If people want to have a moral debate, I’m very happy to have it. There is something real that is incredibly immoral going on here; prohibition transfers one of the biggest industries in the world into the hands of violent criminal gangs, who are killing enormous numbers of people, and who we can largely bankrupt by legalizing drugs. They have killed at least 60,000 people in Mexico in the last seven years. I saw the effects for myself in Ciudad Juarez, as you know. Now that’s a moral issue—and it is the war on drugs that is deeply immoral, for this and other reasons.

I tell the story in the book of Rosalio Reta, who I got to know. From the age of 13 to 17, he was a hit man for the deadliest Mexican cartel and butchered or beheaded at least 70 people. This kind of insane violence—using child soldiers—is the direct result of prohibition. Ask yourself: Where are the violent alcohol dealers today? Does the head of Heineken shoot the head of Smirnoff in the face? No—but when alcohol was prohibited, violence between alcohol-sellers was absolutely endemic. We can end drug sellers’ violence the same way we ended alcohol sellers’ violence—by ending prohibition.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai