When did the United States begin the war on drugs? If you think it was during the Reagan administration, you’d be in agreement with most Americans, but you’d be wrong. The war on drugs, as documented by Johann Hari in “Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), actually began one hundred years ago. Mr. Hari spent three years researching the subject, and he covers every aspect of the century-old criminalization of drug use from those who are the victims of it to those who benefit from it. And on every count, Mr. Hari makes the case that the war has been an utter failure to the point of actually increasing drug abuse and the crime that supports it.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, passed in 1914, began the war in the U.S. But it has spread around the globe, largely, Mr. Hari asserts, through the influence of the United States. In the early years, it was used as a way to enhance the federal crime-fighting budget, and later it became a method of imprisoning “undesirables,” who were often minorities with left-leaning political views. In more recent years, it has been driven by a moralistic perspective that did develop from the Reagan administration’s attitude on personal responsibility, but it has continued to have the greatest negative impact on members of minority groups (most prominently African-Americans).
Mr. Hari documents the tragic life of the jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who died a federal prisoner as a convicted drug addict. But Mr. Hari argues that Ms. Holiday was a victim, not a criminal, and that the criminalization of her addiction only enhanced her demise. That assertion leads to one of the major tenets in the author’s overall thesis. He claims, supported by studies and statements from psychologists and physicians, that the criminalization of drug use degrades those who become dependent on drugs to relieve the pain or lack of purpose in their lives, thereby making them more susceptible to greater reliance on drugs.
But Mr. Hari’s push for legalization is not just aimed at saving the likes of Billie Holiday. In fact, much of his argument rests on the proposition that prohibition only serves the criminal element, making the perpetuation of drug criminalization exactly what the major syndicates and heavy drug producers and suppliers thrive on. In an especially chilling part of his book, he documents the work of the drug cartels in Mexico in sanctioning murders and in terrorizing whole communities. Thus many more victims of the war on drugs, he asserts, are otherwise wholly innocent individuals and families who lose loved ones to these criminal syndicates.
For the best example of the disastrous consequences of the war in this regard, Mr. Hari points to the period of prohibition in the United States, 1920-1933, when violent crime was at historic highs, and the period following the repeal of Prohibition, when violent crime diminished precipitously. Prohibition reduced the level of alcohol consumption marginally, but it increased the amount of violent crime significantly. Once Prohibition was repealed, and alcohol consumption became legal again, the black market for the sale of alcohol largely disappeared and the crime world that had festered and grown around it disappeared, too.
Another point to learn from the Prohibition experience is that incidents of alcoholism were no greater after its repeal than they were during it. In other words, the need to drink, beyond social drinking, was no greater after Prohibition ended than it had been during it or prior to it. And that point raises the question of what causes individuals to become dependent on drugs (alcohol included). Mr. Hari’s answer is that the concept of addiction is largely misunderstood. It isn’t, he asserts, that the drugs make an individual an addict, but rather that the individual is susceptible to becoming an addict before using the drugs in the first place.
For this reason, he devotes much of his book to the idea that the best way to deal with those dependent on drugs is to make the drugs available legally and to offer meaningful counseling and job training, so that addicts are given hope and support instead of being made into criminals and placed in breeding grounds for greater criminal conduct. In that regard, he reports on countries like Portugal and Switzerland, where drug addiction is treated as a physical and emotional dependency rather than a crime. There, drugs are available for those who need them, with the only requirement to their use being that the individual agree to therapy sessions.
Most individuals, Mr. Hari submits, are not potential drug addicts. Alcoholism only strikes a small percentage of those who drink socially, and many drugs are no more chemically addictive. Social drug use need not be criminalized, he says, because no one is harmed by the social use of drugs. To be sure, some drugs are more dangerous (in terms of what they can do to an individual and of what that individual can then do to a community) than others. But even if the goal should be to keep those drugs away from public use, criminalization of them is not a winning answer.
In “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s film on the drug war, the newly appointed drug “czar,” played by Michael Douglas, is told by a DEA official while he tours the Mexican border that the amount of illegal drugs being confiscated is way up. “Of course,” Douglas replies, “that probably means the amount that is coming in undetected is way up as well.” The official nods in grim agreement.
The war on drugs is a lost cause. Worse still, it is perpetrating the most violent forms of crime to the point of putting legitimate governments at risk and individual communities in the grip of drug lords and cartels. And it is incarcerating many (and thereby enhancing lives of crime for them) who could be far better served with a policy of decriminalization, if not full legalization.
“Chasing the Scream” is an important book. It should be required reading for every presidential candidate and every thinking person.