‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johann Hari
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How did the war on drugs start? How is it ending? Johann Hari, former columnist for the UK Independent and former plagiarist, tries to find out. The cover carries an armada of unimpeachable endorsements: Noam Chomsky, Elton John, Stephen Fry, Naomi Klein. Unusually, every quote in the book is referenced, and every interview posted online. This is Hari’s rehabilitation.
Also unusual is Chasing the Scream’s narrative technique. It’s similar to Adam Curtis documentaries like The Century of the Self: take a vast sweep of transcontinental societal change, then cut to the hidden influence of a few shadowy eccentrics. Here Hari makes three historical figures into archetypes: Billie Holiday (addict), Arnold Rothstein (dealer), and the first commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger (cop). It’s an engaging conceit, but the emphasis on Anslinger in particular drifts dangerously close to being flat-out wrong.
In Hari’s telling, American puritans led by Anslinger turned the arsenals of 1920s Prohibition on to narcotics, then bullied the rest of the world into doing the same. “Marijuana was first banned by Harry Anslinger as part of a racist panic against Latinos” is a typical claim from the book. In fact, many US states had strictures on cannabis while Anslinger was still a teenager, and Italy was agitating for international controls as early as 1911. It was Egypt, not the US, railing against “chronic hashishism” that led to the inclusion of cannabis in the 1925 International Opium Convention.
Chasing the Scream briefly touches on racism and religion, but there’s nothing on the other forces that birthed 20th-century narcotics control: the advent of consumer protection and modern pharmaceutical companies, a greater medical understanding of substance abuse, the invention and dissemination of new drugs, the rise of the mass press, and a complex strand of anti-colonial politics linked to the Opium Wars – at the end of the 19th century, social progressives were more often prohibitionists.
More adroit are the sections on the drug war as it is now. There’s a detailed look at how prohibition may be a global monolith but the successful means of winding back are proving to be local, even parochial. Hari includes anecdotes and poignant interview quotes from addicts and campaigners, though often strays into sentimentality – for example, “If you make a connection you lose your vulnerability, and you start to win. You can put down this book and make that connection now.” It’s one thing to consult medical experts, another to channel Dr Phil.
Hari wasn’t a plagiarist because he was lazy. He was a plagiarist because he was addicted to moments that perfectly demonstrated his points. He’s still jonesing for them. In this book they obscure a central truth, that the war on drugs was never really about drugs at all.