My following book review appeared in the Weekend Australian on 28 February:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
Bloomsbury, 390pp, $29.99
The numbers are staggering. More than two million American citizens are in prison, about 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Many are African-American and Hispanic, in jail for drug offences. Race and the selective application of justice is a key theme of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a stunning examination of the “war on drugs”.
Hari, a British journalist, takes a trip down memory lane, to the US of a century ago when it was possible to “go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine”. But a key instigator of the war on drugs, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, soon found his enemy.
Singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict, was one of the most public victims of Anslinger’s zeal against black individuals who dared to question their second-class status. Holiday was a crusading woman who had been beaten, raped and abused for most of her life but her strength, and threat to the then social order, was to resist the suffocating, low expectation of her skin colour.
Anslinger warned the US House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations that Mexican immigrants and African-Americans were undermining social cohesion by excessively smoking marijuana. He had been informed of “coloured students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result? Pregnancy.”
This sounds comical today but Anslinger’s vision remains alive. Hari argues “the main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people”. In the 21st century, it’s black Americans and Latinos who disproportionately feel the full weight of the law for often relatively minor drug offences.
The Obama administration still spends billions every year fighting a war that it knows can’t be won. Addiction is seen as a moral evil instead of a condition that should be treated compassionately.
Former policewoman Leigh Maddox, who spent years arresting and imprisoning drug offenders, tells Hari she eventually realised that “nobody ever trained me on the collateral consequences of marijuana arrests. I had no idea … It’s not something they’re made aware of. It’s go out and get numbers [arrests]. Do your job.” Today she runs a legal clinic in Baltimore, working with students to remove the arrest records of drug offenders. It’s one way to assuage her guilt for sending so many young people into a broken justice system.
Hari is an acclaimed writer who was caught plagiarising a few years ago, but this book is a redemption, and already a New York Times bestseller. It skilfully constructs a narrative around compelling, personal stories, the usually ignored or forgotten individuals who are selling or using various substances; living, avoiding or dying in the “war on drugs”.
Rosalio Reta was an American man who had killed for a Mexican drug cartel but eventually tired of his life and confessed to American officials. Hari visits the border town of Juarez, where he witnesses resistance to a US-led drug war that enriches politicians and police and causes intense suffering among a local population that is forced to flee, kill or remain silent.
He examines Portugal, a nation that ended the persecution of addicts and users in 2001. The numbers speak for themselves, a revolution in method and treatment. Drug use has dropped. “In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.”
Hari’s sympathies are never hidden: he’s opposed to the war on drugs. Chasing the Scream presents a persuasive argument that prohibition has not reduced drug consumption or abuse, but pushed generations into lives of misery, crime and imprisonment.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism.