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Chemicals and the good society

Powerful emotions and life-stories build up to a howl against the stupidity of the war on drugs. A review of "Chasing the Scream" by Johann Hari.

John Marks, a young psychiatrist in 1980s Liverpool, was given the dull job of looking after heroin addicts on prescription. But he was conscientious and set out to understand what worked for them. He discovered they were doing much, much better than street junkies - they had jobs, stable families and weren’t criminals. So he did what Hippocrates would have wanted and expanded the program massively. Even as unemployment was ravaging the city, HIV rates, criminality and street prostitution all fell. Militant Tendency, who controlled the city, disapproved because he gave the masses the opiates that forestalled revolution. And when the US DEA found out what he was up to, the Conservative government was pressured to abolish his programs. His clinics were handed over to evangelical Christians who could be trusted to deliver to the masses their alternative opiate from the pulpit.

This is typical of the stories that fill Johann Hari’s powerful diatribe against the war on drugs: heartbreaking stories of unloved addicts; brave reformers who go against the orthodoxy, and a toxic alliance of ruthless criminals and conservative Americans who thwart progress.

The war on drugs, on Hari’s reading, has been a long nightmare of a trip. Prohibition is the life-blood of vampiric criminal organisations that hold addicts, small-time dealers, downtown neighbourhoods, bent policeman and whole narco-states in their violent embrace. Prisons which mirror the nastiness of the bad guys are chock-a-block with members of the lowest rungs of the drug economy. The arteries of the legal system are all clogged up by the war. If you’ve suffered petty theft, the likelihood is you are another victim. And if someone you love is among the 10% of hard drugs users who becomes addicted, you want just two things: first, that they stop; and, second, if that’s too much to ask for, that they be safe - both of which, Hari plausibly argues, are made much less likely by prohibition.

Chasing the Scream is a well mixed cocktail of anecdote and analysis which are all copiously referenced with source interviews online. This is Hari’s rehabilitation book, after pleading guilty to past charges of plagiarism.

We meet abused and traumatised humans in need of care and love whose only comfort is a fix - with Billie Holiday their bard and patron saint; mothers of innocent victims of Mexican gangs who mobilise against the cartels but run into the corrupt wall of a captured state; good cops who have seen the light and want to make amends; bad cops and prison governors who relish the power to be cruel that prohibition gives them … This is the war on drugs told by memorable vignette; each story delivers its prescriptive payload with precision.

The cause of all the trouble, in Hari’s view, are the hardline drug-warrior social conservatives as exemplified by Harry Anslinger, who ran the US & global war on drugs from 1930 to 1962. Hari describes a paranoid, religious, racist, authoritarian (and ultimately jaw-droppingly hypocritical) man on a personal mission to eradicate evil. But Hari does not get to the bottom of the world view that allowed Anslinger to gather such wide political support in his cause. If you agree with Anslinger that drugs represent “nothing less than an assault on the foundations of Western civilisation”, then even softies might conclude that the tough love of prohibition is necessary.

Hari makes no real attempt to understand or convince the reader of the Daily Mail. Perhaps he doesn’t need to: the book will rally the convinced and sway some waverers. But there is still a deep drugs question lurking here that Hari didn’t answer for me: which chemicals should play what functions in building the society we want? Sartre recommended amphetamines for philosophy and mescaline for fiction; early Islam judged that coffee brought you closer to Allah while alcohol took you away from Him; our workaholic culture seems to be drifting towards “caffeine good, ecstasy bad”. I suspect that prohibitionists and legalisers will continue to fundamentally disagree on the chemical components of the good life.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com

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This review was originally commissioned and published by The Oldie. With thanks for the permission to republish.


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