Book Review: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Chasing the Scream book cover
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari
Bloomsbury USA, 2015

I believe that Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari is one of the most important books currently on our shelves. I think most people are aware that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. What this book reveals about the origins and history of that war goes a long way towards explaining why.

Essentially, Mr. Hari argues that the approach we’ve taken to drugs for the past 100 years is worse than merely a failure—the war on drugs has been just about the worst possible approach we could have taken. It’s doing tremendous damage to our society. It’s the opposite of what we should be doing. Moreover, it’s a hugely hypocritical policy that ensconces deeply racist attitudes. He backs up these claims with numerous examples from the history of the drug war.

Far more important, however, is Mr. Hari’s exploration of alternatives. There are better options available to us to deal with the problem of drug use and the violence that accompanies drug culture. We already have compelling data to show that some of these alternative options actually work—options that are based on compassion, rather than vilification; healing, rather than criminalizing.

This work is packed full of statistics and data that I had never seen before. I hadn’t known that only 10% percent of all drug users—of all drugs across the board—actually become addicts, and that recreational, non-problematic use is by far the most common scenario. I knew that the overwhelming majority of drug violence accompanies the supply and distribution of drugs but I hadn’t known that drug users account for as little of it as they do (less than 10%).

These stats are the parts that stick in my mind most powerfully. These are the bits that I find myself quoting to my friends when I tell them about this book.

Mr. Hari balances these statistics with compelling stories about people from across the spectrum of drug culture. Over the years, he has spent a great deal of time interviewing and observing drug users, members of drug gangs, law enforcement officials, and people who treat drug addicts. He has observed experimental and alternative addiction treatment programs from across the world and he’s widely knowledgeable of the history of drug treatment programs. He has observed and studied the history of the criminal justice policies that have been applied to drug culture by a variety of countries during the 20th and 21st centuries. The stories he shares in this book are powerful and illustrative. They lend historical context and a human face to the raw statistics.

One of my favorite things about this work is how Mr. Hari and his publisher have integrated online elements. Readers can go to the book’s website (http://chasingthescream.com/) and hear audio recordings of his interviews with the people he presents in the book. There’s a “What You Can Do” section which lists resources for anyone who wants to get involved in the cause of reforming drug policy. There’s also a “Questions & Corrections” section for readers to report mistakes that they notice in the book—typos, mistranscriptions of audio interviews, etc. These corrections will be included in future editions of the work. This section is of particular value, as the book has several typos in it. Given the quality if its content, it’s unfortunate that the publisher did such a poor job of proofreading the work.

Mr. Hari encourages readers to contact him directly with any questions they might have. I can attest that he responds to these contacts within a matter of days. He’s clearly very passionate about this issue and makes sincere effort to promote and maintain an open conversation—this book isn’t meant to finish the discussion but to start it. I admire his commitment.

The war on drugs was sold to the American people, and to the world, by getting us to believe stereotypes about drugs use and drug users that simply aren’t true. This book is an essential corrective to these misconceptions. It offers compassion and care, where before we’ve only been offered violence and isolation.

There’s good reason to believe that the alternative drug policies promoted by Mr. Hari will work. But even if they were to ultimately fail, they offer a far better way to fail than the failure of a drug war that we’ve been stuck with for the past century.

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