Book Review: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream is a history of the war on drugs that challenges the conventional societal understanding of this heated topic. The content is thankfully more entertaining than a factual recount because it follows the life stories of a few personalities; legislators, doctors, addicts, enforcers and dealers. The author has clearly used his poetic licence and let his political affiliations seep into the narrative, which is unfortunate, but these don’t detract from the powerful messages. Being harsh, I could probably criticise the style because the message started to get a little repetitive. The content was spot on though, so perhaps repetition was required! I appreciated the approach because it outlined the incentive structures within the drug market – understanding these incentives makes the outcomes easier to comprehend. I would highly recommend the book because I think it is so important to challenge our understanding of drugs, addiction and conventional drug policy. There is also a great Russ Roberts podcast with the author, Johann Hari, which is much quicker to listen to than the audiobook.

In summary, it is probable that the war on drugs has made drugs into a much bigger issue than necessary. Society could be a much better place without prohibition.

Criminalisation turns law-abiding citizens into criminals

Go back 100 years and many of the drugs that are illegal today used to the legal. Corner stores would sell weak products in a safe and secure environment, similar to alcohol and tobacco sales today. While an addiction to drugs is unlikely to be positive for the individual, many users are able to live quite functional lives with either addiction or intermittent recreational usage. Criminalisation makes all users criminals and turns the suppliers into an underground industry run by gangs. No matter what product you outlaw, demand usually remains and there is always someone ready to supply the product – usually professional criminals like gangs. In fact, Hari makes the assertion that gangs wanted drugs to be criminalised because this placed the whole drug industry in their hands. Law-abiding businesses, like doctors who provided patients with low intensity dosages in order to manage their addiction, wouldn’t be able to compete with gangs once the industry went underground.

Gangs can only use power and violence

Increasingly powerful drug gangs that control the supply lines also have an enormous amount of economic power to wield in society. Gangs cannot use the rule of law to protect their industry so they buy favour and protection from the police. In most countries, gang bosses and law enforcement agencies have tight relationships. Similarly, street dealers and the local police usually know each other pretty well. This is not a coincidence. The incentives of prohibition create the corruption.

The cycle of violence wrecks untold damage

Gangs’ central tenant is extreme violence in order to intimidate competitors. Apart from bribery, violence is their only tool to protect their product, supply lines or distribution channels. The resulting cycle of violence from the war on drugs has caused untold damage. Not just in terms of actual deaths of police, gang members and junkies but think of all the children born into drug-infested families who turn to the streets as soon as they are able to peddle drugs. In the case of girls, the path towards prostitution and sexual violence is well worn. The stories on this theme are traumatic and persuading.

Quality control is problematic under prohibition

Outlawing a product also brings with it a reduction in quality control. Imagine entering 1920’s America for a second, during prohibition. Rather than purchase a standard 5% alcohol beer, if you want a drink you have to hope that your criminal supplier has a systematic and reliable production process. By increasing the risk of buying and selling beer prohibitionists also encourage much stronger products and less frequent sale of those products. Buyers and sellers would rather transport smaller quantities, meet less often and users would prefer to get a bang for their buck during the infrequent moments that they are able to consume. Hence the alcohol market shifted towards dangerous moonshine during prohibition, rather than the typical consumption of less harmful beer and wine. The illicit drugs market has done the same thing where addicts use dangerously strong products that are often mixed with over-the-counter poisons in an attempt to make them stronger and cheaper.

There is limited evidence that prohibition even works. Prohibitionists use the number of people arrested, prosecuted and jailed as success stories for their policies. Yet the streets of US towns are still littered with drugs despite billions of taxpayer capital being spent on policing. Hari makes the point that the war for drugs outside of America, in Mexico or Colombia for example, is far more hotly contested than the war on drugs inside America.

Over-the-counter vs. illegal drug addiction

People continue to use legal and illegal drugs despite the prohibition. Many of these people aren’t addicts and continue to live functional lives despite their criminal activities. Of course, some people do appear to have a predisposition to addiction and the availability of strong narcotics is problematic for them. However, many people are addicted to strong over-the-counter medications like Valium. If people want to medicate, they will find a fix. So perhaps decriminalisation would shift some addicts from over-the-counter medications towards currently illegal products. If the quality, quantity and effect of these products was transparent, would this be a terrible outcome? Decriminalisation would also encourage research on these products, which in many cases has lain dormant since criminalisation was enacted. Experienced and well respected medical academics argue that certain illegal drugs could provide better medical cures than their legal competitors. These arguments make me wonder whether pharmaceutical companies themselves lobby against decriminalisation? Decriminalisation could deregulate their industry and create significant competition.

Addiction is a psychological problem, requiring support

In the case where usage does coincide with addiction, the addiction is rarely solved through conventional correctional facilities measures where users are dehumanised and chastised for their actions. Addicts are generally dealing with deep psychological pain and use drugs as an escape from that pain. So while certain drugs are addictive it isn’t the drug itself that causes human addiction. The psychological attachment is created by a combination of emotional pain and the temporary drug-induced release of pain.  Dehumanisation makes these psychological issues worse, not better. Addicts need love and support, not imprisonment. Countries who have decriminalised drugs, like Portugal, have usually seen a reduction in use and a decline in the number of drug-related deaths. While repairing the psychological cause of addiction is difficult, miss-use of dirty needles, for example, is much easier to rectify. Solving the health related problems created by miss-use of cheap underground substances brings with it a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for users. After which users are more likely to add value to society, which often leads to a reduction in usage. By contrast, current drug policies usually make it very difficult for anyone with a criminal conviction to ever hold a normal job again. Permanent underemployment is such a depressing outcome that we shouldn’t be surprised if these people return to drugs to cope.

Prohibition is a discriminatory public policy

After hearing the stats years ago about the number of black Americans in the US prison system I already knew there are strong racial undertones to the war on drugs. The idea of young man being imprisoned and struggling to find work for the rest of his life, just for the possession of a small about of a recreational narcotics, irked me. The book took this a step further, making me aware that more explicit racial strategies may have been used by law enforcement in the 1970’s and 1980’s in order to suppress black Americans and other minorities during the civil rights movement. This theme is incredibly powerful. Pulling back the lens, any time that a country implements a broad social policy it puts a huge amount of power in the hands of legislators and enforcers. While it is possible that the intentions of that policy are positive, there is absolutely no guarantee that the intentions of law enforcers are positive. We’ve already discussed the risk of corruption but what if the leader of the law enforcement agencies has a specific bias against Mexicans, for example? The idea that the US police force used the war on drugs as a tool to oppress segments of society is entirely plausible. Over and above this, the incentives created by the war on drugs always marginalise the poorer, less educated and more vulnerable portions of society because these are the people more likely to be users and suppliers in this industry.

I wish we could move towards a world of less onerous drug legislation and follow the Portuguese example. If a drug policy is required, then rather spend the taxpayer money on educating kids about the negative impact drug can have on their lives. Give children the skills which will allow them to hold decent adult jobs, which should make them less susceptible to the negative drug spiral experienced by so many. Throwing parents into jail for minor drug-related indiscretions is unlikely to benefit society.


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