Chasing The Scream, Review Part I: The War On Drugs Makes Drugs More Dangerous


This is the first in a four part New Matilda series by Michael Brull, reviewing Chasing the Scream, a book by journalist Johann Hari that examines the ‘War on Drugs’. In this article, Brull looks at Hari’s argument that one way to kill more people through drugs is to make them illegal.

What should drug policy in Australia look like? One answer which didn’t fare very well in the media was the “Stoner Sloth” advertising campaign in NSW, which cost us $350,000.

Another answer which might be on the way from the Greens is decriminalisation of drugs, which has prompted a predictable backlash from the Murdoch press.

I have occasionally surprised people with my views on drugs. I don’t drink, have never smoked, and have never tried any illegal drugs.

I have tried alcohol, but I was never a regular drinker. I’ve never been interested in taking up illegal drugs, and I’ve generally been considered so square that very few people have even suggested that I try them.

For much of my childhood, I was in favour of draconian punishments for people who used drugs. When I was 13, my school suspended 11 kids for two years for buying and selling weed on campus. Apparently most kids were outraged, and they staged a series of protests against this punishment.

I sat them out. I thought expulsion for those kinds of offences was a no-brainer.

And then, one day, there was a debate in a school assembly. It was about whether drugs should be decriminalised. I sat down with my mind firmly made up, expecting my perspective to win the day. Then I listened to a young woman who spoke in favour of decriminalisation, and it shook my position.

Contrary to my expectations, she was also firmly anti-drugs. She wasn’t arguing about whether drugs were good or worth taking, but whether our policies were effective in addressing their evils.

I walked out confused. It seemed decriminalisation wasn’t just for those who were pro-drugs.

I thought about the issue for a while. Eventually, I decided that people who use drugs only harm themselves. Thus, criminalising the possession and use of drugs seemed like madness, because it punished people for harming themselves. It seemed not merely unjust, but naturally and intrinsically counterproductive.

When I started writing this review, the Children’s eSafety Commissioner had just explained that the law is not the way to address the issue of what is called “revenge porn”. After all, “You can’t just arrest [your way]out of a social problem”.

I’m not sure whether that applies to revenge porn, but it definitely applies to drugs. By now it should be clear that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem.

What would a more sane policy look like? Well, Johann Hari’s new book, Chasing the Scream offers one answer.


About The Author – Johann Hari

Hari’s book is an international best-seller, glittering with over 20 endorsements, mostly from celebrities and celebrity leftists. Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, BJ Novak, Elton John. And Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman and Glenn Greenwald. Perhaps more significantly, also a blurb from David Nutt, former chief scientific advisor on drugs to the British government.

For those who don’t know, Johann Hari is a British journalist who used to work for the Independent. He was a very successful writer, who received various awards for his work. He wrote in a punchy, accessible way. He started out as a left wing supporter of the war on Iraq – the kind of thing that establishes one’s “seriousness” in respectable media circles – before he turned on the war and became more of a standard leftist.

British journalist Johann Hari, during a TedX talk in 2015.
British journalist Johann Hari, during a TedX talk in 2015.

In 2011, Hari was caught in a scandal, and forced to resign from the paper and hand back his Orwell Prize. The scandal was this: when Hari conducted interviews, he would claim that the interviewee had told him something, using words from interviews they had given elsewhere. Hari failed to acknowledge where these words had come from. He disputed at first that this was plagiarism, but few were convinced. Hari eventually apologised, and went into journalistic exile for several years, writing and saying very little until he published his new book.

As British blogger Richard Seymour observed, as a columnist Hari specialised in a kind of “colour” journalism: “the telling quote, the saucy detail, the heart-wrenching testimony… that style of writing does lend itself to embellishment, exaggeration and invention.” Hari engaged in plenty of dishonesty before. It just didn’t count, because he was lying about the left.

For example, Hari claimed British historian Eric Hobsbawm was “an unapologetic defender of Stalinism”. He grossly distorted the positions of UK politician George Galloway in a book review. And he lied about what American intellectual Noam Chomsky had told him.

When Chomsky responded by explaining what he had actually said, and accused Hari of “idiotic fabrications”, Hari purported to not detect the difference between their two versions of what Chomsky had said. Hari then alleged that Chomsky has a “long-standing dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as ‘American propaganda.’”

Years later, Hari would write that Chomsky is regularly “hysterically abused”, and “pepper-sprayed with smears” for analysing power. One example that Hari gives of those despicable smears is the claim that Chomsky is a “Pol Pot-licking communist”. It seems Hari responded to criticism by Chomsky with a vicious and gratuitous smear.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of dishonesty that causes a scandal, or the kind that anyone is ever made to apologise for.

People are often dishonest in polemics. Telling lies about radical leftists, when it’s even noticed, is regarded as a benign demonstration of zeal and righteousness. It’s not the type of dishonesty that offends the kind of people who matter in intellectual life.

Nevertheless, Hari was a talented writer and journalist, and I was one of many who were disappointed at the implosion of his career. The fact that this book represents Hari’s re-emergence into public debate has been noted by many. A natural question is: can Hari be trusted?

To gain the trust of readers, Hari has posted on the book’s website the audios of the 400 quotes from interviews which he used in the book. You can check each and every quote, to see how accurately he has rendered the words of the people he interviewed. And he explained the process of transcribing and checking them on the website.

Also – he solicits and publicly posts corrections on his website, which now number 14. Readers who go through the footnotes will notice that there are a lot of them, where he seems to anxiously demonstrate his determination to document his sources, at times discussing even trivial questions that might arise.

There are 55 pages of endnotes, and a 14-page bibliography. If he has made anything up, or distorted any of his sources, there is an easy trail for readers to check for themselves.

Critics have a standing invitation to show any dishonesty in Hari’s book. He made plenty of enemies as a columnist, who have shown themselves eager to put the boot in when the chance arose.

As it stands, the book has been out for a year. It has been widely reviewed. It has received some criticism, but I don’t think anyone has argued that Hari has engaged in the kind of dishonesty or plagiarism that caused the controversy of 2011.

As it happens, I think this is a good book, with weaknesses. Seymour was right, Hari is a journalist of the “telling quote” and “saucy detail”. This makes for good reading, but not meticulous writing.

Hari claims that he didn’t “want to write a 400-page polemic about the drug war… I wanted to understand it”. Yet the end product is a kind of polemic by anecdote. Hari doesn’t exactly write 18 arguments. Instead, he presents 18 chapters, each of which helps make the case for ending the war on drugs. They do so by making arguments and exploring issues – by going to Portugal, Mexico, Switzerland, or writing about Billie Holiday and Harry Anslinger.

It would be more tedious if Hari devoted chapters to reviewing the state of scientific research, rather than recounting anecdotes designed to grab reader’s attention. Yet it would be more reliable.

How effective is Hari’s argument by “telling quote” and saucy detail? Well, he is a talented journalist. He writes engagingly, and skips with a light touch from one story to the next. He won’t necessarily persuade readers on every point. I wish the scholarship of this book was more rigorous. But I think many of his points should shake the complacency of unthinking prohibitionists, and deserve wider debate.

Hari raises three themes in particular that I want to explore. One is the various harms that are caused by prohibition of drugs. I will explore this in the rest of this article.

Second is the issue of what causes addiction, which I will explore in the second part of my review of this book.

The third is Hari’s exploration of places where drugs have been decriminalised, which I will explore in part 3.

I will end my review with a fourth article, in which I critically evaluate Hari’s book and scholarship.


The harms of the war on drugs

One of the central arguments of Hari’s book is that many of the harms caused by drugs are actually caused by the war on drugs. Hari only devotes a few stray remarks to the racism of the war on drugs today, which has been explored by others.

Hari begins by telling the story of the war on drugs being shaped by the racism of Harry Anslinger, America’s founding head of its Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Hari argues that the main reason the war was launched was because “the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.”

Hari doesn’t review this history systematically, preferring to personalise it by relating the life of Anslinger, and the destruction of Billie Holiday’s career and life.

Yet the points Hari makes about the war on drugs are mostly unrelated to its launch in America. They are simpler, and though he uses anecdotes to make his points, they mostly stand on their own.

US Immigration and Customs officers uncover an elaborate cross-border drug smuggling tunnel discovered inside a warehouse near San Diego. (IMAGE: Dan Rogers, DVIDSHUB, Flickr)
US Immigration and Customs officers uncover an elaborate cross-border drug smuggling tunnel discovered inside a warehouse near San Diego. (IMAGE: Dan Rogers, DVIDSHUB, Flickr)

The first is that criminalising drugs creates a lucrative market for criminals. Suppose, for example, that computers were criminalised. People across the world would still depend on computers, so we would soon see criminals creating illegal business models for meeting this need.

Laws would not be effective in stamping out public interest in computers, vast sums of money would be spent trying to prevent people selling them, and governments would miss out on revenue from all the computer sales.

In essence, this is what happens with drugs. Criminals can make a lot of money making, smuggling and selling drugs, because people across the world want to get high.

In relatively poor countries, this can create serious governance problems. Hari tells the stories of the cartels in Mexico, and their immense wealth and power. It is estimated that they make up to $29 billion every year from sales in the US alone.

America has tried to wage war on the cartels, with little success. In one incident, they trained an “elite force” at Fort Bragg, gave them weapons, and sent them to fight the cartels in Mexico. The elite force arrived in Mexico, and then promptly defected to a cartel, calling themselves the Zetas.

The problem isn’t just making criminals rich. It is that in something like a pure market place, criminals who sell drugs can’t turn to the state to protect their territory or product. So instead, they protect themselves. The most vicious and brutal get ahead. Softer competitors get crushed.

In Mexico, there have been 60,000 deaths in five years alone. This is an utter disaster.

What if drugs were legalised? The cartels would be put out of business. Which is more or less the story of Prohibition. Prohibition led to the creation of vicious gangs in America competing to sell alcohol.

One prominent gangster recognised that “we can make a fortune meeting this need”. When alcohol was legalised, the gangs couldn’t compete with legitimate businesses. Gangsters still exist, but their stranglehold over alcohol has long been dead.

Another side effect of prohibition can be observed. According to Professor Jeffrey Miron, the murder rate has twice increased “dramatically” in US history.

One was 1920 to 1933, the other was 1970-1990. Both were when prohibition (of alcohol, and then other drugs) was “dramatically stepped up”.

Anyone who has seen The Wire or Breaking Bad can guess why. If you want to establish your illegal business, you need to demonstrate to competitors that you are dangerous enough for others to leave you alone, and honour their commitments to you.

Those who want to establish new businesses in drugs need to demonstrate that they are even more dangerous than the already established drug enterprises.

Hari also argues that the war on drugs makes drugs more dangerous. Part of this is about drugs being unregulated.

If you want to buy a bottle of alcoholic whatever, you will go to a shop where you can read the label and see the alcohol content of the drink. If you go to a pub to get a beer, you might not be able to see the percent label on the glass, but you’ll have a decent idea of how alcoholic it is.

This is because the reputable manufacturer which the pub gets its beer from will have to meet certain standards. You will thus be able to guess how much you can drink before you’ll get tipsy, and the point at which you should cut yourself off.

Suppose, however, that you want to score some heroin, or ecstasy. You don’t know what is in the product. You don’t know how potent it will be.

As drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann explained: “People overdose because… [under prohibition]they don’t know if the heroin is 1 percent or 40 percent… 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.”

Users also don’t know what they’re getting in their drugs. Someone who purchases heroin or cocaine might find it cut with other products. If you buy wine, you know it won’t be laced with something dangerous to compensate for its poor quality.

The fact that the drug business is unregulated makes its products significantly more dangerous. Hari gives the example of heroin, which many think “naturally cause abscesses, diseases and death”.

According to Hari, “All doctors agree that medically pure heroin, injected using clean needles, does not produce these problems. Under prohibition, criminals cut their drugs with whatever similar-looking powders they can find, so they can sell more batches and make more cash.”

To put it another way – there are a lot of harms caused by drugs. Yet the related crime, and the worst dangers of drug use, could be greatly diminished by moving from criminalisation to legal regulation.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).