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'Chasing the Scream' poses provocative questions about America's 'war on drugs'

One hundred years after the Harrison Act outlawed heroin and cocaine in the United States, a journalist challenges America's approach to illegal drugs.

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    Chasing the Scream:
    The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
    By Johann Hari
    Bloomsbury USA
    400 pp.
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In 1938, an American doctor wrote a book that predicted America’s war on drugs would create a $5-billion smuggling industry within 50 years. The logic was simple: Making drugs illegal grants a monopoly to criminals willing to sell them. And the evidence was persuasive: The chief drug prohibition officer in California was actually being paid by a Chinese drug dealer. The dealer wanted anti-drug laws enforced. When clinics, pharmacies, and other dealers were prosecuted or scared out of selling, the Chinese dealer would acquire a whole new set of customers.

Though estimates of profitability vary, drug trafficking is now a multibillion-dollar business. But was the doctor right to attribute the massive growth of this illegal sector to America’s drug policies? This is the central question of the British journalist Johann Hari’s ambitious and powerful new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

Hari’s story opens in the first decade of the 20th century, long before the drug war had assumed anything close to its current proportions. American pharmacies sold many products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine (including Coca-Cola). But this widespread availability coexisted uneasily with a racially-tinged hysteria about the dangers drugs posed to the purity of white America. Opium was presented as a sign of “oriental ruthlessness,” and mobs afraid of Chinese influence burned and lynched 21 Chinese people in Los Angeles. The New York Times ran stories with headlines like this: NEGRO COCAINE “FIENDS” NEW SOUTHERN MENACE.

The 1914 Harrison Act outlawed heroin and cocaine. But it granted doctors the right to prescribe these drugs as they saw fit, a loophole intended to help addicts quit slowly and safely. In the late 1920s, an employee of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics named Harry Anslinger began warning of the “unspeakable sexual depravity” and lust for white women that drugs would unleash. He claimed that marijuana produced violent and permanent insanity in every user. Even as the criminalization of alcohol was failing – it drove vast profits into the hands of bootleggers and caused dramatic spikes in violence as gangsters battled for market share – racial paranoia and public misinformation campaigns helped Anslinger convince politicians to fund stricter enforcement of drug prohibition. (Though many white singers and celebrities used drugs, he relentlessly tried to prosecute Billie Holiday).

The legacy of the racist claims that helped launch the drug war still persists in differential enforcement of drug laws. One study found that while 19% of drug dealers were African-American, they comprised 64% of those arrested for dealing. But even if racial disparities in enforcement disappeared, the example of Prohibition suggests that a deeper problem might be the laws themselves, not just inconsistent enforcement.

Before Prohibition consumers could walk into a bar and request a particular type of alcohol with reasonable confidence in its potency and quality. Making alcohol illegal removed regulation of production and often reduced the range of options. The result was that people drank whatever they could get, no matter how unsafe the product. Similar dynamics characterize illegal drug use: Consumers have no assurance of quality and simply buy whatever is available. This not only leads to overdoses, it also tends to push people toward harder drugs. Beer was the most popular drink in America before Prohibition. Once alcohol was illegal, smugglers quickly realized that transporting beer was not worth the risk. A truck of beer might supply 100 people, but packed with gin or whiskey the same truck could supply drinks to many more. Beer regained its dominance only after alcohol became legal again in 1934.

Prohibition not only endangered those who drank alcohol; the battles between organized crime and the authorities made many major cities like Chicago into chaotic and violent places. Successful raids against bootleggers did not reduce crime or alcohol consumption; if the leader of one gang was imprisoned, more violence erupted as rival successors fought to fill the position of their former boss. Homicide rates soared.

Hari makes a convincing case that this same cycle has engulfed large swaths of modern Mexico. Because drugs are illegal, criminal gangs control their production and distribution. Unable to settle disputes in court, rival cartels fight viciously at the slightest provocation and struggle to monopolize the immensely profitable industry. One of the people Hari interviews is a teenager imprisoned in Texas who once worked as an assassin for a Mexican drug cartel. His stories are terrifying.

Many argue, however, that legalizing drugs would only lead to chaos and crime and widespread addiction. Hari addresses this argument in two broad ways. First, he points to successful examples of decriminalization. Addiction rates actually fell in Portugal after drugs were no longer illegal. Overdoses and HIV transmission declined quite rapidly in Switzerland and the Netherlands after those countries allowed doctors to prescribe drugs to addicts. Money that was once spent on law enforcement was suddenly available to invest in rehabilitation programs and drug education campaigns.

Hari’s second reply to skeptics reverses the conventional wisdom that drugs cause crime. He argues that the criminalization of drugs – not drugs themselves – is responsible for much of the crime associated with drugs. Making drugs illegal allows criminal organizations to control prices. These organizations invariably establish a monopoly and charge as much as possible, which artificially inflates prices and creates an incentive for many users to become dealers to fund their addiction. These dealers then fight one another for territory, and the losers often turn to crimes like armed robbery as a source of income.

From Brooklyn to Mexico to Arizona, Hari shows the same depressing dynamics at work. But in Switzerland, Portugal, Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington, he finds hopeful evidence that legalizing – or at least decriminalizing – drugs decreases crime, increases the safety of users, and does not lead to the widespread addiction that many fear. His reporting is balanced and comprehensive; he interviews police and prisoners, addicts and dealers, politicians and activists. He also delves into different historical periods as case studies on the costs and benefits of the drug war. His book should be required reading for anyone involved in the drug war, and a glance at the national budget shows that anyone who pays taxes is involved in the drug war.

One of the most surprising of the many revelations in Hari’s book is that substance addiction is not exclusively or even primarily a chemical phenomenon. He cites one study that found that heroin users continued to use a product they believed was heroin even when it contained absolutely no heroin. They felt only minor symptoms of withdrawal. Another study found that only around 17% of cigarette smokers were able to quit with the help of a nicotine patch. If addiction were entirely chemical, the rate should have been much higher. Something psychological makes it hard for addicts to abandon their lifestyle.

Even a commonly cited study about rats and morphine turns out to be misleading. When isolated and given an unlimited supply, rats will consume staggering and often deadly doses of morphine and other drugs. The chemical theory of addiction would explain this behavior by saying the rats are in the grips of compulsive cravings that make it impossible for them to act otherwise. But once the rats were given a social and engaging environment with other rats, good food, and interesting games and activities, the amount of morphine they consumed dropped fivefold. They suddenly had more interesting things to do.

The same logic applies to humans. Portugal tries to help addicts with a holistic approach that re-integrates them into society by helping them find work, develop friendships, and build a varied and full life. In America it’s much harder for someone with a drug conviction to find work, housing, and community. Imprisoning addicts ensures that they remain marginalized and stigmatized, and this makes them more vulnerable to addiction.

Hari debunks many myths and fallacies surrounding addiction and the drug wars. But this book is also an eloquent reminder of an easily forgotten truth, one that the doctor in 1938 used as the title of his own book: "Drug Addicts Are Human Beings".

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