The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs: An Interview with Johann Hari

By David BreithauptMarch 31, 2016

The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs: An Interview with Johann Hari
WHAT COMES TO MIND when you hear the phrase, “the war on drugs”? Is it the image of Nancy Reagan enjoining us to “just say no”? Or a campaign stump speech from a candidate running for Sheriff in your county? Or maybe a nation of coast-to-coast prisons stuffed with drug offenders, the majority of them black males? Whatever your response, you should know that this has been a real war, with real casualties in the form of ruined lives and families.

Johann Hari’s 2015 book, Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (which was released in paperback by Bloomsbury Press in January), will surprise you with the sheer toll this war has taken, not only on the American people but on the entire globe. It will also challenge the way you think about drug addiction and legalization. Hari tells a story that is as compelling as it is tragic, and he offers possible solutions to a war that continues to fail on many fronts. He takes a panoramic view of the last 100 years — starting with Harry Anslinger, the principal instigator of this war who aimed his demonizing rhetoric at black “jazz musicians.” One of the first and most visible of the casualties was Billie Holliday, who was hounded and persecuted until her death. But that isn’t even the tip of the tip of the iceberg. This is a war that runs long and deep.

Hari traveled the globe for three years, talking to drug policy experts, doctors, addicts, and rulers of countries that had legalized or decriminalized drugs. What he discovered surprised him as it will the reader.  We chatted online recently about his travels, the people he met, and his sense of future developments in the war on drugs.


DAVID BREITHAUPT: I was wondering about the roots of current political thinking, which keeps promoting the war on drugs and prohibition. Is it because this is an easy sell to voters who are largely unaware of alternatives to incarceration and other punishments or are there other vested interests at work?

JOHANN HARI: It’s both, and it’s more than that. I guess to start with it might be useful to explain why I wrote the book — because it was only through the journey that I went on that I found the answers you are, I think, also looking for.

One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives, and not being able to. As I got older, I realized why — we had addiction in my family.

It is now 100 years since the war on drugs began in the United States and was then gradually imposed on the rest of the world. As this centenary approached, I realized there were lots of really basic questions I didn’t know the answer to. Why were drugs banned in the first place? Why does this war continue when so many of us think it doesn’t work? What really causes drug use and addiction? And what are the alternatives? Exactly the kind of questions you’re getting at.

I couldn’t find the answers in what I was reading, so I went on a 30,000-mile journey across nine countries, and I met an amazing range of people — from a transgendered crack dealer in Brooklyn, to a scientist who feeds hallucinogens to mongooses, to the killing fields of Ciudad Juárez, to the only country to ever decriminalize all drugs.

What I found is that almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The drug war is not what we have been shown on our TV screens. And the alternatives are not what we believe them to be.

We have very deep misconceptions about these questions, even those of us who are opposed to the war on drugs. Those wrong ideas and false beliefs run right across society, informing the way people vote and the political space within which politicians operate. I think that’s the biggest factor blocking change. But you’re quite right — there are also vested interests at work, and that’s a big deal. When you build huge government bureaucracies to fight a global war, they — and the corporations who profit from them — will move to protect and defend their territory. If you want to see who they are, just look at who funds the anti-legalization campaigns whenever there’s a referendum: it’s a mixture of the prison-guard unions, the alcohol companies, and so on.

Your book begins with the grandfather of the war on drugs, Harry Anslinger, who in the first half of the 20th century was a one-man warmonger against drugs, especially narcotics. He was seemingly inspired by the gruesome sounds of a neighbor kicking dope when he was a child. Yet as time wore on, his motives became darker and clearly racialized. What do you think really drove this man? Did he believe his own hoopla or was he simply using it to further his own darker agendas?

Harry Anslinger is the most influential man nobody has ever heard of, and he played a key role at a key moment in history. He was a government bureaucrat who took over the department of Prohibition, not long before the 21st Amendment was ratified, making alcohol sales and consumption legal again. The department had recently been renamed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. So he had a huge government apparatus with nothing to do — and he wanted to keep it going. His position depended on it. He built the great edifice of drug prohibition, long before Richard Nixon. He was the first person to use the phrase “warfare on drugs.” I spent time in his archives and then pieced together other key parts of his story — and it’s fascinating to see how and why he did it. He was obsessed with pulp fiction, and he saw himself as a pulp detective. He’s a fascinating, dark character.

He built the war on drugs around the three groups he hated most. The first was African-Americans. This is a man who was so racist that he was regarded as crazily so during the 1920s. His own Senator said he should have to resign because he used the “N word” so much in official memos. He believed that drugs were deranging African-Americans and leading them to attack whites and impregnate white women.

The second group was drug addicts. Anslinger believed that addicts were “contagious” and had to be “quarantined” — cut off from the rest of humanity. These first two groups came together, in his mind, in the form of the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who was his worst nightmare: a drug-addicted African-American woman challenging white supremacy. He was obsessed with her. In the book, I tell the story of how he stalked her, playing a key role in her death. The story of how Billie — and so many other Americans at the time — resisted Anslinger and the early drug war is one of the most inspiring I know.

The third group Anslinger hated was the Mafia. And here’s a complexity to the story: he was one of the first senior figures in federal government to realize the Mafia was real. It’s hard to believe now, but the Mafia was seen as an urban myth — like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But Anslinger had met these wiseguys as a young man. He knew they were real, and he wanted to destroy them. The tragedy is that the policy he believed would destroy them — drug prohibition — was, in fact, the biggest gift they received in the 20th century. He transferred the enormous industry in drugs from the people who used to control it — doctors and pharmacists — into the hands of organized crime. That’s what prohibition does. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said: “Al Capone was the product of alcohol prohibition. The Crips and the Bloods [and, he might well have added, Pablo Escobar and El Chapo] are the product of drug prohibition.”

It was fascinating, after doing this historical research, to see how all this is still playing out now — in the racism of the drug war I saw on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn; in the destruction of addicts I saw when I went out on a chain-gang in the deserts of Arizona; and in the carnage I saw in Ciudad Juárez. We all live in the world Harry Anslinger created.

A century has passed since drugs were declared illegal. Why do so many people want to use drugs more than ever? And why does the government continue punishing them?

On the long journey I took to write my book, I discovered answers to the questions you’re asking that surprised me and were not what I expected at the outset. Let’s start with the people who want to use the drugs that are currently banned. You mention that millions of people are in this position. I’d like every reader of this article to stop reading for a moment and write down the answer to a question: What proportion of currently illegal drug use do you think causes no harm to the user — they don’t get addicted, they don’t overdose, they don’t make their health worse? Stop reading — don’t look ahead! — and write the figure down.

The United Nations Office of Drug Control is the main drug-war body in the world. Their official slogan is “A drug-free world — we can do it!” Yet even they admitted, a few years ago, that the answer to my question is 90 percent. So the overwhelming majority of drug use isn’t harming the user — including the drugs we think of as the most dangerous. It’s quite startling. But when you think about this in relation to the drug we know best — alcohol — it makes total sense. Go to a bar near you tonight and look around. You’ll see that 90 percent of the patrons are drinking for a simple reason: it makes them feel better. It helps them relax, or flirt, or have fun. There may be a small number of alcoholics in the bar too — people who need our love and support — but they are a minority. It turns out that that’s the case with all recreational drugs, basically.

This brings us to the question, why are drugs banned? They are banned today because most people believe that, if we lifted the ban, we would see a lot more addiction and a lot more children using drugs. Those are perfectly sensible fears, and I share those motives — I am also driven by a desire to reduce addiction and protect kids. The only difference is that I believe the evidence shows that our current approach makes both those problems worse, and the evidence from countries that have moved beyond the drug war shows that decriminalization and legalization are the real ways to protect addicts and kids.

In your book, you discuss the influence of environment on addiction …

When I started my research, I assumed, like almost everyone else, that drug addiction is caused by the chemicals in the drugs themselves. This is a simple and obvious story, and it seems like common sense to us. I thought I had seen this play out in my own family. We tend to think that if we all used (say) heroin for 20 days, on day 21 we would all be heroin addicts. This is because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our bodies would start to physically crave. That is what we think addiction is. That’s certainly what I believed.

The first thing that alerted me to the fact that there is something wrong with this story is when it was explained to me by doctors that if I get hit by a car and break my hip, I will be taken to a hospital and given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It is much stronger heroin than addicts buy on the streets, because it hasn’t been contaminated by dealers. Anyone reading this who has had a hip operation has taken a lot of heroin. If what we think about addiction is right, what should happen? Those people — at least some of them — should become addicts. Yet this has been very closely studied, and it simply doesn’t happen.

When I found this out, I was really puzzled. I only began to understand the situation when I interviewed psychology professor Bruce Alexander in Vancouver. He explained to me that the theory of addiction we take for granted comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They are very simple. You take a rat and you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water, and almost always kill itself by overdosing quite quickly. So that is our theory of addiction.

But in the 1970s, Professor Alexander looked at these experiments and noticed the obvious fact that the rat has nothing to do except use these drugs. So he built a very different cage, called Rat Park. It is basically heaven for rats. They have nice food and colored balls and lots of friends to play and have sex with — and they have both water bottles, normal water, and drugged water. But this is the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use it; none use it compulsively; none ever overdose.

Addiction is not caused by the drugs themselves. Addiction is caused by a sense of isolation and disconnection in the addict. It’s not the drugs — it’s your cage. Addiction, in other words, is an adaptation to your environment. If your environment leaves you bereft of connections and meaning, you are considerably more likely to become addicted.

There are many human stories I discuss in my book, but I’ll give you just one here. In Vietnam, huge numbers of US troops were using a whole lot of heroin. If you look at reports from the time, US authorities were terrified because they believed that, when the war ended, they were going to have hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets. But what happened? The war ended, the soldiers came home, and according to a detailed study, 95 percent of them just stopped using heroin altogether. They didn’t go to rehab. They didn’t go into withdrawal. They just stopped.

Now if you believe the story we’ve all been told about chemical hooks, that makes no sense. But if you understand Professor Alexander’s story, it makes perfect sense. If you are taken out of a horrific jungle where you might die at any moment, and you go back to your life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family, that’s like being taken out of that first cage and put into Rat Park. You want to be present in your life, so you don’t want (or need) to be drugged the whole time.

This really helped me to think differently about how to help the addicts in my own life. Loving an addict is really hard. The way we are told to treat them, in our private lives, is best laid out by the reality show Intervention: everyone in the addict’s life gathers together and tells the addict to shape up or they’ll all cut her off. Their message is that an addict who won’t stop should be shunned. You threaten to sever the connection — you make it insecure. I came to realize that that’s just the logic of the drug war imported into our private lives. In fact, everything I learned suggests that such a strategy will only make addicts worse.

So I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever — to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop or can’t. I sought to deepen the connection. I can’t tell you it’s easy or that I can do it consistently. I can’t tell you that I’m not angry some of the time. But what I say to them is, I love you whether you’re using or not. I will sit with you, and listen to you, and try to be with you. That’s what I try to live by. For a century now, we have been singing war songs about addicts when we should have been singing love songs to them. The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.

Let me switch gears for a moment. We have seen in Mexico or Colombia that the drug war can endanger the viability of the state itself. Why don’t governments decriminalize drugs? What do they fear?

You are right. In many countries along the drug-supply routes, the state has been taken over by criminal cartels. In Juárez, I was shown around by the wonderful Reuters correspondent Julian Cardona — one of the bravest and most honorable men I know. He kept introducing me to the families of people who had been killed by the police, and at one point I said to him, I need to meet people who have been killed by the cartels. He just laughed and explained that, if the cartels want to kill somebody, they pay the police to do it. They’re not separate forces. That’s when I realized how scary the situation is.

The Mexican and Colombian governments are scared of two forces. The first is public opinion in their own countries — people have the same fears and misunderstandings there as they’d have in the US. But there’s a much bigger fear of the US government. Under Vicente Fox, the Mexicans voted to decriminalize cannabis — and the US government threatened them so severely that they backed off. Whenever a Latin American country tries to change its drug laws, the US threatens trade access and aid budgets. That’s why Jose Mujica — the incredible Uruguayan President whom I interviewed — is so remarkable for defying the US and legalizing marijuana.

Would decriminalization put an end at least to drug violence?

It’s important to understand the different between decriminalization and legalization. Decriminalization is when you stop punishing users but you still have to buy your drugs from armed criminal gangs. Legalization is when you open up legal, regulated ways to buy drugs — from stores or doctors or pharmacists. Decriminalization is a step forward, but it does nothing to stop the violence caused by prohibition. Only legalization can do that. I went to places that have legalized drugs — Uruguay with marijuana, Switzerland with heroin — and it works remarkably well. The crudest way to put it is: decriminalization shuts down Orange Is the New Black, but only legalization shuts down Breaking Bad.

What economic arrangement would you propose for legalized drugs? I mean, would you favor a state monopoly rather than competition between private corporations?

At the moment, drugs are controlled by insanely violent cartels like the Zetas and violent gangs on the streets of Europe. Any legal option is better than that. Even a private, for-profit corporation is a lot better than the Zetas coming to chop off your head. Personally, I would prefer not-for-profit, state-owned monopolies — like they have for the alcohol trade in Sweden — where all advertising and promotion are strictly banned.

Why haven’t capitalist countries been eager to legalize drugs since it would clearly be a highly profitable industry? Why haven’t global authorities decided that such an approach would be better for everybody, even just economically speaking?

Again, there’s two separate parts to this — one has to do with capitalism itself and the other with global authorities. To start with, there’s no one body called “capitalism.” There are different capitalist forces, with different interests, and there are (in parallel) competing democratic forces that sometimes empower and sometimes restrain those capitalist forces. As I say, the main block to legally regulating the drug market today is public opinion, and we need to work on persuading people. What we have today is the worst possible kind of capitalism: violent gangsters competing partly over price, but mainly through violence.

There are — to use broad-brush strokes — two alternatives to this. One is to have a legal and regulated market, where for-profit corporations provide the product. This is better than the current situation because it is not violent: I will take GlaxoSmithKlein over the Zetas any day of the week. But this is still, for me, problematic. Corporations want to advertise, to promote their product, and so on. I am as uncomfortable with that as I am with tobacco companies promoting their product, or gambling companies promoting theirs. That’s why I prefer the other option — to have the drug market controlled by state monopolies or by not-for-profit groups, like the Spanish cannabis social clubs. That way, you end the drug-war violence without creating companies who have a financial incentive to promote drug use. But as I say, both alternatives are better than the especially horrific kind of capitalism that currently controls the drug trade today.

To answer the second part of your question — about why the global authorities haven’t chosen the path of regulation — it’s an understandable but common mistake to assume that what happens is that somebody at the top of our political culture looks rationally at what would be the best option and chooses the best path based on evidence. That’s not how policies get made in practice — as anyone who ever met a politician, or reads history, realizes. What really happens is that global authorities, and politicians, respond to the pressure put on them. If there is pressure from public opinion or powerful forces to keep prohibition, that will happen. If there is pressure from organized democratic movements to change the situation, and they are persistent, they will eventually prevail.

In Chasing The Scream, I tell the story of how a homeless street addict started a democratic movement in Vancouver that has transformed the drug policies of Canada and saved thousands of lives. All over the world, people are organizing to end the drug war — and many of them are winning. Waiting for “capitalism” or “global authorities” to act isn’t going to get us anywhere. We need to start ourselves, and if a homeless street addict can do so much, so can all of us. You are much more powerful than you think.

You also explain how the war on drugs generates a culture of terror where different dealers fight among themselves in order to get a bigger piece of the pie. Is increasing violence the competitive advantage of drug dealing? Can you summarize how it works in, for example, Ciudad Juárez? 

I mainly relate this dynamic in the book through the story of one of the most extraordinary people I know: a transgendered crack dealer in Brooklyn named Chino Hardin. He was conceived when his mother, who was a crack addict, was raped by his father, who was an NYPD officer. The story of who he is — as I learned it by interviewing him over three years — moved me so much. Chino is a really compassionate person, but as a dealer he was sucked into the insane logic of a prohibited market and ended up doing some horrible things he finds it difficult to think about today. (This dynamic plays out even more extremely, as I saw, in Juárez — I’ll come back to that in a second.)

There’s a simple way to explain this. Imagine that you and I go into a liquor store in Barcelona and try to steal a bottle of vodka. They’ll call the police, and the police will take us away, so there’s no need for that liquor store to be violent or intimidating. Now imagine we try, instead, to steal some cannabis or some cocaine. Obviously, your local drug dealer can’t call the police to stop us — they would arrest him. So he has to be violent and intimidating. Indeed, as Chino taught me, you don’t want to be having a fight every day, so you have to establish a reputation for being so terrifying that nobody will dare to fuck with you. So, as you say, the war on drugs does create a culture of terror.

And it gets worse than that. In a prohibited market, groups don’t compete, in the main, by offering better products. They compete by establishing themselves with violence and killing their rivals. This plays out on the streets of Madrid or London or New York, but it is especially extreme in the supply-route countries because, in a city like Juárez, 70 percent of the entire economy consists of the illegal drug trade. That means the cartels can buy everything, including the police.

As the writer Charles Bowden put it, the war on drugs creates a war for drugs. The way you gain a competitive advantage in such a market is by being prepared to be more violent and intimidating than your rivals. So if you are the first person to kill not just your rivals but, say, their pregnant wives, you get a brief competitive advantage. If you are then the first person to kill their pregnant wives and put it on YouTube, then you get another brief competitive advantage. If you are the first guy to cut off their faces, sew them onto footballs, and post the image to their families — this is all real stuff that happens — then you get a brief competitive advantage.

This is all clearly horrific, but it is an economically “rational” part of the system we have created. Such horrors end only when we end this system. I’d ask again: where are the violent alcohol dealers? When prohibition ended, they disappeared.

That’s both the most frustrating thing, and the most inspiring thing, that I learned on the 30,000 miles I traveled for this book. The violence and the misery caused by the drug war is preventable. It doesn’t have to happen. There’s nothing abstract or theoretical about the alternatives — I’ve seen them in practice. I’ve visited Portugal, where all drugs have been decriminalized, and Switzerland, where heroin has been legalized. You know how many people have subsequently died of heroin overdoses in Switzerland? Zero. You know how many violent heroin dealers they have now? Zero. There’s an alternative. It’s there, waiting for us. And it will save a huge number of lives. If people want to know the solution to the current US drug crisis, and the horror in Mexico, here’s your answer.


David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous BreakdownRumpusExquisite Corpse, and others.

LARB Contributor

David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.


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