Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. And the war on drugs is not what we see on our TV screens. In Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari shares his discoveries through the riveting true stories he uncovered on a 30,000-mile journey – from the founder of the war on drugs who stalked and killed Billie Holiday, to a transgender crack dealer in Brooklyn, to the only country that has ever decriminalised all drugs, with remarkable results. You will never look at addiction – or our society – in the same way again.
I bought this book after hearing the author on Absolute Radio. I couldn’t quite get to grips with his idea that legalising drugs was the way forward, in fact was the only way to stop the dreadful mess that drug use causes. So I bought the book and it was a complete revelation.
As the mother of young adults, one at university and one who will soon go, and as someone who was young(er!) during the era of Ecstasy and acid house and raves, and a former student to boot, I’m not unaware of drug use and the drug culture. But I’m also a child of the eighties, the era of Nancy Reagan’s war on drugs and that dreadful campaign by the cast of children’s school-based soap Grange Hill urging everyone to Just Say No! If only it were that simple.
It isn’t. Drug use, addiction, the drugs trade and the laws surrounding all of it are so much more complicated than that. And Hari does an absolutely brilliant job of untangling everything, sweeping away the lies and misinformation and getting to the very heart of what exactly is going on. And what is going on certainly isn’t about protecting young people from the horrors of drugs, whatever you may have been told.
When we think of drug users, we think of addicts, desperate for a fix, stealing and lying and worse. We think of the meth addicts in Breaking Bad, of the horror and filth and degradation of Trainspotting. When I was at school they wheeled in a former heroin addict to warn us that taking drugs, even once, would inevitably lead to a life of crime and worthlessness.
But as I grew up and moved away from home and met more people, I knew people who took drugs. People who had jobs, or were getting good grades at uni. Some had mortgages. They weren’t sleeping in the gutter, or prostituting themselves. As Hari points out, around 90% of people who use drugs use them without causing any disruption to their lives or to the lives of those around them. Thinking of the meth addicts from Breaking Bad or of Trainspotting’s Renton in that disgusting toilet bowl when we picture drug use is disingenuous. It’s like assuming anyone who has a glass of wine in the evening to unwind is the same as the alcoholic who has bottles of whiskey stashed all over the house and has their first drink of the day with their cornflakes.
We’ve bought into this myth wholesale and it’s caused far more harm than good. It wasn’t all that long ago that drugs were legal (even heroin) and not everyone was running around in a drug-fuelled frenzy. In fact, all the evidence points to a reduction in crime when drugs are decriminalised. It is criminalisation, which has generously handed over the supply chain to drug cartels, that has caused all the problems.
Some of the stories I read here will stay with me forever. The horrible hounding of Billie Holiday, the vile use of chain gangs in Arizona (and I mean now – not a hundred or even fifty years ago), the dreadful death of a meth addict in the US, left to literally cook to death in the heat when she was placed in a ‘cage’ as punishment. Contrast these with the success of decriminalisation in Portugal and you realise that it really is a no-brainer.
Hari is a skilful journalist, and while the book is full of facts and figures, the narrative is entertaining, engaging and a real pleasure to read. It’s one of those books where you keep stopping to tell someone what you’ve just read because you can’t quite believe it (I drove my husband mad).
It’s essential reading – something needs to be done about the lives being ruined and the money being wasted. Prohibition isn’t working, that much is obvious. It’s time for a grown-up discussion, away from all the catchphrases. It’s time to try something new, and Hari’s book shows time and again what that should be.