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“Chasing the Scream”: The Beginning and End of the Drug War

The drug war has failed, and a humane policy of legalization and nonpunitive drug treatment is long overdue.

(Photo: Bloomsbury USA)

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Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari, Bloomsbury(Photo: Bloomsbury USA)(Photo: Bloomsbury USA)

More than 100 years ago, the US launched what became known as the War on Drugs, a relentless, if futile, campaign to convince Americans – and later the rest of the world – to “Just say no.” The history of that war is the subject of Johann Hari’s fascinating and compelling Chasing the Scream, an important analysis of the whys and wherefores of this colossal waste of energy, time and money.

Hari introduces several characters that serve as archetypes to tell the tale: Harry Anslinger, the law enforcer; Arnold Rothstein, the dealer and profiteer; and Billie Holiday, the addict.

“When Harry and Arnold and Billie were born [at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively], drugs were freely available throughout the world,” he writes. “You could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine. The most popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin for society women.”

Yes, it sounds preposterous, but Hari has done copious research and has shared a startling reason for the shift away from such permissiveness. And it has nothing to do with muddle-headed junkies or lay-about addicts. Instead, it has to do with race.

According to Hari, Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a tiny office within the Treasury Department, was initially a relatively ineffectual outfit. Although the bureau had succeeded in making cocaine and heroin illegal in 1914, the relatively small number of users meant that the agency was destined to remain small. This angered Anslinger, a man determined to wield influence, and drove him to devise a strategy to win hearts and minds. The idea? Pander to racist fears.

Hari notes that Anslinger was well aware that by the early decades of the 20th century, increasing numbers of Mexican immigrants were flooding into US cities. In concert with escalating worry about African American ascension, he concocted an argument suggesting the Blacks and Mexicans far outpaced whites when it came to drug use. “He presented the House Committee on Appropriations with a nightmarish vision of where this could lead,” Hari continues. “He had been told, he said, of colored students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students [white] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: Pregnancy.”

Oh, the horror. But Anslinger did not stop there. No, he conjured dramatic scenes of marijuana parties that “turned man into a wild beast.” In short order, his lurid fantasies became ingrained in everyday discourse. The end result? A popular campaign against all drugs and that dastardly music, jazz, that aided and abetted their use.

Meanwhile, post-Prohibition, men like gangster Arnold Rothstein sniffed opportunity and saw that a pretty penny could be made selling now-illegal substances. He understood that by preying on people’s desire to escape the drudgery of work-a-day life, he and his ilk could create a market for the products they sold.

Enter Billie Holiday, a woman whose childhood reads like something out of the pages of Dickens and who found solace at the end of a needle. At the same time, when her professional star began to rise, Anslinger became outraged and assigned one of the Bureau’s few Black agents to tail, and eventually arrest, her. Holiday’s is a story of tragedy writ large. After her arrest and conviction, Hari writes that she was imprisoned. Then, when she was released, things went even further downhill.

“As a former convict, she was stripped of her cabaret performer’s license, on the grounds that listening to her might harm the morals of the public,” Hari reports. “This meant that she wasn’t allowed to sing anywhere that alcohol was served – which included all the jazz clubs in the United States.”

Flash forward 80 years, and felons, whether drug-related or not, are now routinely denied the right to vote in many states and are barred from numerous occupations. Call this Anslinger’s legacy.

That said, Anslinger was not without critics. Some noted that the Drug War had been given a boost by the Mafia. In fact, Hari contends that mobsters “paid Harry Anslinger to launch his crusade because they wanted the drug market all to themselves. It was the scam of the century.”

Dr. Edward Williams was one of many who sounded an alarm over this travesty. In addition, Williams had long utilized a loophole in the law that allowed physicians to write prescriptions for heroin, a policy sanctioned by the Supreme Court in 1925. Not surprisingly, Anslinger hated this provision and hated the vocal doctors who used it, and eagerly sought a way to play gotcha with them.

In 1931, he sent undercover agents to try and trick Williams and other anti-Anslinger physicians into pulling out their prescription pads. “Once the prescription was written,” Hari writes, “the police burst into the room and Edward Williams was busted, alongside some 20,000 other doctors across the country.” It was one of the biggest legal assaults on the medical profession in US history.

The upshot was the end of legally prescribed heroin and an expanding number of drug agents hired to arrest users of everything from smack to weed.

Hari addresses this from numerous perspectives and interviews members of drug gangs in Brooklyn as well as Mexico, zeroing in on the many crimes that have been committed by this flourishing industry. The approach, while highly anecdotal, is effective, and humanizes the dealers as well as those who rely on them.

There’s Chino, a former member of Brooklyn’s Most Wanted, a gang that controls the drug trade in a small section of Flatbush. Chino had been abandoned by his drug-addicted mother, a woman who likely became pregnant as a result of rape. His first incarceration was in the now-closed Spofford Juvenile Detention Facility. He was 13. Subsequent arrests led him to Riker’s Island. Although he eventually got out of the business, he remains angry over the racism at the heart of the Drug War.

As Hari explains, “Drug use is evenly distributed throughout New York City. In fact, the evidence suggests white people are slightly more likely to use and sell drugs – but in [Chino’s] neighborhood there is a crackdown, violence and warfare, while in richer, paler neighborhoods there is freedom and rehab for the few who fall through the cracks.”

In addition to this disparity, Hari adds that murder rates have spiked twice in US history. “Both times were during periods when prohibition was dramatically stepped up. The first is from 1920 to 1933, when alcohol was criminalized. The second is from 1970 to 1990, when the prohibition of drugs was dramatically escalated. In both periods, people like Chino responded to the incentives to be terrifying and to kill in order to control an illegal trade.”

So what’s the solution? Hari visited Colorado and Washington, states that have made marijuana legal, and Uruguay, a country that has done the same. He also traveled to Vancouver, Canada, where pure heroin is given to users and where safe rooms are available for injection. Modeled after programs in Portugal, The Netherlands and Switzerland, Hari reports that this has eliminated deaths from overdose.

“People overdose because [under Prohibition] they don’t know if the heroin is 1 percent or 40 percent,” he writes. “Just imagine if every time you picked up a bottle of wine, you didn’t know whether it was 8 percent alcohol or 80 percent alcohol, or if every time you took an aspirin, you didn’t know if it was 5 milligrams or 500 milligrams.”

What’s more, Vancouver activists and medics found that by refusing to treat users in a punitive manner – as though they deserved to be homeless, hungry and filthy – they improved public health and safety. Hari’s visit to the safe rooms was eye-opening.

“As you enter you are taken through the lobby, shown to your booth, and given clean needles. You inject yourself, while a friendly trained nurse waits unobtrusively in the background. The booths are small and neat and lit from above. Once you have injected yourself, you can walk through to get medical treatment or counseling or just to talk about your problems. Anytime you are ready to stop, there is a detox center right upstairs, with a warm bed waiting for you.”

One of Hari’s most significant insights lies with the overall concept of addiction. While most of us scoff at the idea of a single toke of weed leading to a lifetime of addiction, we tend to believe that heroin and crack are more dangerous. Hari takes issue with this and argues that even these drugs can be taken recreationally without dire impact, in the same way that most people can knock back a few drinks without becoming alcoholics. Those who become hooked, he argues, represent a small minority and are typically those who have experienced deep psychological trauma or isolation. Their pain – and the desire to blot out the emotional angst they feel – makes them seek out drugs as a more-permanent escape.

This, he continues, explains why heroin use does not skyrocket in places where it is legally available. In Windes, England, for example, after a heroin clinic opened, usage fell, a trend replicated in a host of other places.

What about marijuana, you ask? Hari concedes that usage in Colorado and Washington has increased – slightly. Nonetheless, he posits that drug harm has decreased because regulation controls additives. In addition, he writes that legalization has reduced its use among teens and children.

“People who sell alcohol in our culture have a really strong incentive not to sell to teenagers,” he writes. “If they do, they lose their license and business. The people who sell other, prohibited drugs, have a really strong incentive to sell to teenagers: they are customers like everyone else.”

Of course, every drug can be abused, and Hari does not minimize the devastation addiction can cause. He is not naïve. Still, by presenting addicts as traumatized people, he inspires compassion.

Chasing the Scream is a moving, well-written, and well-researched argument for abandoning the Drug War. Hari champions the baby steps that have already been taken toward this end. At the same time, he is clear that we need a much bigger set of policy changes.

Harry Anslinger must be rocking in his tomb.

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