It’s nearly 10:00 a.m. one Friday in late February, and I’m getting antsy. The British journalist Johann Hari was supposed to be here by now to talk about his new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” We’ve had plans to meet a few times before, but Hari had to cancel twice because of conflicts due to his U.S. book tour. My favorite via e-mail: “Alas I have been summoned to be on Bill Maher's show in LA on Friday.”
But just as I’m about to head downstairs to the lobby to see if there’s a British journalist wandering about, I hear, “Matthew?” And there’s Hari standing in my doorway, an energy drink in hand. After a bit of small chat, Hari and I dive into what he discovered in his multi-year, globe-trotting odyssey to get to the bottom of the drug war. What’s astonishing is Hari’s grasp of his material, from the beginning of the U.S. manufactured drug war in the ’30s to the growing international realization that any war on drugs is a war on humanity. It all comes rushing out of his mouth in the prose-worthy sentences that’s helped to land his book on The New York Times’ bestseller list.
Over an hour-long conversation, Hari and I discuss the racist origins of the drug war, how dehumanizing drug addicts only makes matters worse, how environment affects drug use, and whether the world is really starting to turn a corner on the drug war toward more humane, compassionate, and effective strategies to cope with drug abuse and addiction.
The following conversation has been edited for length and for clarity.
Matthew Harwood: So “Chasing the Scream,” what’s with the title?
Johann Hari: The most influential person who no one has ever heard of is Harry Anslinger, the man who invented the modern War on Drugs — way before Nixon, way before Reagan. He’s the guy who takes over the Federal Bureau of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending. So, he inherits this big government department with nothing to do, and he basically invents the modern drug war to give his bureaucracy a purpose. For example, he had previously said marijuana was not a problem — he wasn’t worried about it, it wasn’t addictive — but he suddenly announces that marijuana is the most dangerous drug in the world, literally — worse than heroin — and creates this huge hysteria around it. He’s the first person to use the phrase “warfare against drugs.”
But he was driven by more than just trying to keep his large bureaucracy in work. When he was a little boy, he grew up in a place called Altoona in Pennsylvania, and he had this experience that really drove him all his life. He lived near a farmer and his wife, and one day, he goes to the farmhouse, and the farmer’s wife was screaming and asking for something. The farmer sent little Harry Anslinger to the local pharmacy to buy opiates — because of course opiates were legal. Harry Anslinger hurries back and gives the opiates to the farmer’s wife, and the farmer’s wife stops screaming. But he remembered this as this foundational moment where he realized the evils of drugs, and he becomes obsessed with eradicating drugs from the face of the earth. So I think of him as chasing this scream across the world. The tragedy is he created a lot of screams in turn.
It leads him to construct this global drug war infrastructure that we are all living with now. We are all living at end of the barrel of Harry Anslinger’s gun. He didn’t do it alone – I’m not a believer in the “Great Man Theory of History.” He could only do that because he was manipulating the fears of his time. But he played a crucial role.
MH: We here at the ACLU look at the drug war and see that it has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. You find, however, that this war was pretty racist from the beginning.
JH: If you had said to me four years ago, “Why were drugs banned?” I would have assumed it for the reasons people would give today — because you don’t want kids to use them or you don’t want people to become addicted. What’s striking when you look at the archives from the time is that almost never comes up. Overwhelmingly the reason why drugs are banned is race hysteria, and the way I tell that story in the book is through the story of singer Billie Holiday, who was a heroin addict, and how Anslinger played a crucial role in stalking and killing her.
In 1939, Billie Holiday stands on a stage quite near here [in New York City] and sings this song “Strange Fruit” — a song against lynching. It’s incredibly shocking at the time to have an African-American woman singing a highly political song about lynching at a time when very few songs had any political content. It’s also worth remembering she was standing in a hotel where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door — as an African-American, they made her enter through the service elevator. It was viscerally shocking to people and that night she gets a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — Anslinger’s men — saying, in effect, stop singing this song. She effectively said, “Fuck you: I’m going to carry on singing my song” — and that’s when the stalking that eventually leads to her death begins.
Anslinger busts her, and she’s put on trial. She said, “The trial was called the United States v. Billie Holiday and that’s how it felt.” She goes to prison and when she gets out, she can’t perform anywhere because you needed a license to perform, a cabaret performer’s license. This is what we do to addicts all over America: We take away their capacity to work.
And she relapses and after a lot of heavy use, she collapses. The first hospital she’s taken to turns her away. The second hospital she’s admitted, but she’s convinced the narcotics agents aren’t finished with her — and she’s right. She said to one of her friends: “They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me.” They handcuff her to the hospital bed, even though they know she’s got liver cancer. They don’t let her friends in to see her, and she goes into heroin withdrawal. One of her friends manages to insist she’s given methadone. She is and starts to recover. Then after ten days, because of the rules introduced by Anslinger, the doctors cut off the methadone and she dies. And to me, that story tells you so much about the dynamics of the birth of the drug war and what’s happening now. That it was driven by race. At the same time that Harry Anslinger finds out Billie Holiday is a heroin addict, he finds out Judy Garland — the actress who played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” — is a heroin addict. He tells her to take longer vacations and assures the studio she’s going to be fine.
The second aspect you see is how the drug war makes addiction worse. People become addicts largely because they are distressed and in terrible pain and cut off from sources of meaning. We then take them and inflict further suffering, further pain, and cut them off further from their sources of meaning. And we’re surprised that they don’t get better. Gabor Maté, an amazing doctor in Vancouver, said to me if you wanted to design a system that would make addiction worse, you would do what we do now. So I think really what you see in that story at the birth of the drug war is those two dynamics that are still the primary determinants now: race and the deepening of addiction.
So I went, for example, to a prison in Arizona. It was one of the most shocking places I’ve ever been — Tent City …
MH: To visit Sheriff Joe Arpaio …
JH: Yes, Arpaio was a personal disciple of Harry Anslinger. He employed Arpaio in 1957 as a narcotics agent. When I mentioned Harry Anslinger to Arpaio, his face lit up. And it’s easy to think Arpaio is this kind of outlier, this freak, but the American prison system is much closer to Arpaio’s model than it is to any model of reasonable and decent compassion.
I went out with a chain gang of women who were addicts and who were forced to go out wearing t-shirts saying, “I was a drug addict,” and dig graves. One of the most shocking stories I got for the book was when I interviewed Donna Leone Hamm, who’s one of the only people in Arizona who works on prisoners’ rights, and I asked her one of my standard questions: “Tell me about something that shocked you.” She goes down this long list and somewhere down the list she said something like, “There was the time they put that woman in a cage and cooked her — that was quite bad.” And then she just carried on, and I said words to the effect of, “Sorry, Donna, can we go back a second? What was that?”
MH: Can you explain that to me?
JH: There was a woman called Marcia Powell, about whom almost nothing was known when I started doing the research, except that she kept being arrested either for having meth or prostituting herself to get meth. In 2009, she woke up in Perryville prison. She was suicidal, and the doctor refused to believe she was suicidal. To kind of shut her up, they took her and put her in a holding cage — which is literally an exposed cage in the desert — and they left her there. She cried and she begged for help. She begged for water, and she shat herself. The guards ignored her or mocked her, depending on whose account you believe — and in the end she collapsed. By the time they called an ambulance, she had been cooked to death. No one ever was criminally punished for what happened to Marsha Powell. A few people were fired, but no one ever faced criminal prosecution.
MH: Didn’t she actually experience second or third degree burns from that?
JH: Yes. She was cooked. Her internal organs were cooked. And there are lots of things about that. I mean there’s this very effective campaign at the moment — #blacklivesmatter, which I think is hugely valuable — and I think we need to also talk about how addicts’ lives matter. The drug war is built on dehumanization. One of the things I’ve tried to do very hard in my book is to present it as a series of human stories. Because I think part of the job we have to do is to re-humanize people.
Marcia Powell was thrown out of the home when she was 13 by the mother who had adopted her. She ends up living on the beach. She almost certainly was prostituted as a child. She has this completely traumatized life, and as so many addicts are, she was trying to stun her grief and pain with intoxicants. And what do we do? We take them and we traumatize them even more. It’s barbaric.
MH: You’re very good at finding personal stories, and it’s a book with a lot of law enforcement officials. It seems you found a lot of them who have soured completely on the drug war. Why is that?
JH: If I wanted to explain why the drug war doesn’t work, and I could take any set of individuals, I would take the former cops that I met, particularly Leigh Maddox. She was a cop in Baltimore, Maryland. Leigh signed up to be a cop because her best friend was murdered by what she believed was a drug gang. Leigh could not have been a stronger believer in the war on drugs. Leigh went into the police force to destroy drug gangs. That was her driving and overriding purpose, and she spent many years busting people and felt totally righteous about it. She was like Harry Anslinger’s dream girl. But Leigh is a very honest person, and Leigh noticed two things: One is they were overwhelmingly arresting African-Americans even though African-Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than any other ethnic group.
To give some context to that: I quote in the book a guy called Matthew Fogg who once went to his boss one day and said something like: Hey boss, how come when we do drug raids, we only ever really go to the black neighborhoods? I’m pretty sure that white people use drugs. And his boss said something like: Well, you’re damn right they use drugs, but you know those people get lawyers and judges. They know lawyers and judges and journalists. Let’s just go for the low-hanging fruit.
So it’s very important to understand, and Leigh came to understand, that even when there’s no racist intent, there’s a racist effect. Because if you have a law that’s been broken by half of the population, you can’t put half of the population of the United States in prison — although to be fair, you are giving it a fair shot — so what can you do? You’re going to go after the most unpopular and despised minorities who can’t fight back, and we know who those are in America. So it’s partly that Leigh noticed the incredible racism of it.
To kind of shut her up, they took her and they put her in a holding cage — which is literally an exposed cage in the desert — and they left her there. She cried and she begged for help. She begged for water, and she shat herself. The guards ignored her or mocked her, depending on whose account you believe — and in the end she collapsed. By the time they called an ambulance, she had been cooked to death.
She also noticed something more unexpected — which is if you’re a cop and you arrest a rapist, the next week, there’s less rape in your town, right? Rape goes down. If you’re a cop and you arrest a drug dealer, well, firstly no one thinks there’s less drug dealing, right? We know that because the drug price never goes up. If supply was constricted, the price would go up and that doesn’t happen. But something even more interesting happens. The rate of drug dealing never goes down, but if you bust drug dealers, the rate of murder actually goes up, the killings go up. Leigh couldn’t really understand why at first, and then she discovered that basically what happens is if you’re a drug dealer, you establish control of your patch using violence. You establish a reputation for being terrifying and awful. If someone comes along and busts you or kills you, someone else has to come along and establish a reputation for being terrifying and violent. It triggers a turf war for control of the patch where people will kill each other and establish a reputation for violence.
So, Leigh noticed all this and started to think: Well, I went into this in order to bankrupt the drug gangs. What she realizes is that the drug war actually transfers this whole industry to the drug gangs. It’s what keeps them in business; they depend on it. They’re depending on it so much that at the start of the drug war, they actually bribed the narcotics agents to introduce it, as I explain in the book.
So she said that if you genuinely want to bankrupt the drug gangs, what you have to do is go back to where we were earlier in the 20th century and where many countries have gone, like Switzerland, and take the trade out of the hands of armed criminal gangs and give it to doctors and pharmacists instead. By the way, that does not mean a crack aisle in CVS. No one wants that — legalization has a very different meaning. It’s very important to understand what the kind of legalization that people like Leigh and people in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) are in favor of actually means.
What we have at the moment is anarchy: unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark. Legalization is a process for extending regulation to this currently anarchic situation. That means different things for different drugs, and we don’t have to invent anything new. We have the structures of regulation in place. I can’t just go into CVS and buy strong sleeping pills. I have to get them from the doctor. You would extend that form of regulation that has happened in Switzerland. I have seen it in practice, and it works remarkably well.
MH: One of the biggest misconceptions that I think you tease out is that most people think addiction is about the chemical hooks in the drugs. There is some evidence of that, but it’s small. There’s something else at work. And scientists are beginning to understand this, and you go into detail about one of the experiments that shows what addiction is really about. Can you talk about that?
JH: If you said to me four years ago, “What causes, say heroin addiction?” I would have looked at you like you were a little bit simple-minded. I would have said, well, heroin causes heroin addiction. We’ve been told a story about what the main cause of addiction is for a hundred years. It’s so deeply engrained, it’s like common sense. We think that if you, me, and the next 20 people in this office all used heroin together for 20 days our body would start to physically need it. And so on day 21, we would all be heroin addicts, right? We would have succumbed to the chemical hooks; we would be craving it. That’s how we think it works.
The first thing that alerted me to the fact that there may be something wrong with that story is when it was explained to me that if you or me today were to step out of this office and be hit by a car, and we break our hip, we’ll be taken to hospital, and we’ll be given loads of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much better heroin than you’d score on the streets because it’s medically pure, without all the filler and contaminants drug dealers put in it. You’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. Anyone reading this anywhere in the developed world should know — in a hospital near you, lots of people are being given lots of heroin, often for quite long periods of time. If what we believe about addiction is right, what should happen? Those people should become addicts. They should leave hospital and try to score on the streets. Yet you will have noticed your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip operation.
I didn’t really know what to do with that knowledge when I found it out because it seems so contrary to everything I thought. And then I began to really understand it when I interviewed a man called Bruce Alexander, who’s a professor in Vancouver. Bruce explained to me that the theory of addiction we have comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. Very simple experiments: Readers can do them at home if they’re feeling a bit sadistic. You get a rat and you put it in a cage and you give it two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drug-water and almost always kill itself. So there is our theory of addiction.
Bruce comes along in the ’70s and says: Hang on a minute, putting the rat in an empty cage? It’s got nothing to do. So Bruce built Rat Park, which is like heaven for rats. Anything a rat could want, the rat park has. It’s got nice food; it’s got colored balls; it’s got tunnels; it’s got its friends; it can have loads of sex. Anything a rat wants, it’s got. And it’s got both the water bottles — the drug-water and the normal water — but here’s the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, the rats just don’t like the drug water. They hardly ever use it, none of them ever use it in a way that looks compulsive, none of them ever overdoses.
MH: So when they do use it, it’s kind of like they’re doing it recreationally?
JH: Yeah. It looks like recreational use. What Bruce says is it’s not immorality. It’s not your brain. It’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.
Human beings have an innate need to bond. And when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond with the people around us. If you can’t bond with the people around you because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down, you will bond with something that gives you a sense of relief. Now that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, but it will be something. And we should think of addiction as a process of bonding rather than as a process of hijacking.
And the human example of this is the Vietnam War.
Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin. The vast majority of them came back and just stopped. They didn’t go to rehab. They didn’t go through some terrible withdrawal process. They just stopped. Because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be, where life is miserable, and you could die at any moment, and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family and your purpose, it’s like being taken out of the first cage and going into Rat Park. You don’t want to use.
MH: Why is Rat Park actually very, very important for drug reform? Why does it matter for public policy?
JH: There are two elements. First, it’s hugely important for drug reform because the drug war is based on the idea that the problem is the chemicals, and we need to physically eradicate those chemicals from the face of the earth. If, in fact, the problem is not primarily the chemicals and if, in fact, it’s isolation and pain, then suddenly the whole policy we have is thrown into a different perspective — because what we do is inflict more pain and more isolation on addicts. In that prison in Arizona, I went to the solitary confinement area, which they call “the hole,” and saw these women shut in there. I suddenly thought: “Fuck, this is the closest you could ever get to a literal human reenactment of the cage that guaranteed addiction.” And we’re surprised it doesn’t stop addiction.
You realize the craziness of it. We cut them off. A) We literally put them in cages, put them in prison, but then B) We make it impossible for them to get jobs when they get out. That will maximize addiction, not minimize it. So it’s partly that.
In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is mind-blowing. And every year, they tried the American way more — they arrested more people, imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. And one day, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and they basically said: We can’t go on like this? What are we going to do? And they agreed to set up a panel of scientists, doctors, and judges to figure out what would genuinely solve the problem. And they agreed, in advance, that they would do whatever that commission recommended, so they took it out of politics.
The panel goes away for — I think it was a year and a half — and they come back and say: Decriminalize everything, from cannabis to crack. But, and this is the crucial next step, take all the money we currently spend on arresting and trying and imprisoning drug addicts and users and spend all of it on the lessons of Rat Park. Reconnect addicts with society. So some of it was things like rehab and psychological support, but most of it was very different to what we do in North America and Britain: subsidized jobs for addicts and micro-loans so addicts could set up businesses.
So say you used to be a mechanic, when you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say: If you employ this guy for a year, we will pay half his wages. They just made it really easy and cheap, the exact opposite of what we do where we make it impossible for addicts to get jobs. The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal wakes up with something to do in the morning, with something to get out of bed for in the morning, with some dignity and some self-respect. And it’s been nearly 15 years now, and the results are in: Injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Every study shows addiction is significantly down; overdose is massively down; HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.
And one of the ways you know it’s been such a success is almost no one wants to go back in Portugal. And one of the most moving interviews I did was a guy named João Figueira, who was the top drug cop in Portugal. He led the opposition to the decriminalization. He said the things that lots of people perfectly reasonably say when they hear this is, which is: Surely if you decriminalize all drugs and you end all punishment for it, you’ll have a massive explosion of drug use. You’ll have all sorts of problems. And he said to me, I’m paraphrasing the exact quote: Everything I said would happen, didn’t happen. And everything the other side said would happen did. And he talked about how he felt ashamed that he’d spent 20 years arresting and harassing drug users, how street crime had massively fallen because addiction has fallen, how he can see now that addicts were people who needed compassion and love, and how he hoped the whole world would follow Portugal’s example. And it’s very striking to me, every country I went to that’s moved beyond the drug war, almost no one wanted to go back.
MH: One of the really great statistics you bring up in the book is that for 90 percent of the population who do choose to use drugs, can do so fairly responsibly. What I found interesting — and I think it goes to the fact that people just don’t really understand drug use — is that in some of the clinics, you would have people who would show up, shoot up for lunchtime, and basically go back to their jobs. So there’s that idea that it isn’t this totally incapacitating thing that makes you a slave to a certain degree.
JH: That’s really interesting. I think there are two things in that. So, the figure of 90 percent does not come from the Drug Policy Alliance. It comes from the UN Office of Drug Control, which is the biggest drug war body in the whole world, whose slogan is: “A drug-free world: we can do it.” They admitted — they’ve subsequently taken down the document I noticed the other day — but they admitted that 90 percent of all drug use is non-problematic, which means that it doesn’t cause addiction, it doesn’t cause you to overdose.
In that prison in Arizona, I went to the solitary confinement area, which they call “the hole,” and saw these women shut in there. I suddenly thought: “Fuck, this is the closest you could ever get to a literal human reenactment of the cage that guaranteed addiction.” And we’re surprised it doesn’t stop addiction.
What’s happened is the drug war creates this distorted picture of drug use, which actually then reinforces the drug war. So there’s that going on, and I think also there’s the very interesting thing about the Swiss heroin clinics. Swiss people believe in getting up early. I go to this clinic in Geneva at like 7 in the morning — you can go at any time during the day — and there’s all these people lining up. There’s just people sitting in this waiting room, and they go into this little cubicle and use their heroin that they’re given, and then they go off to work. And it was really like, “Wow.” So we have these myths. Of course there are tragedies caused by drugs, as I’ve seen in my own family. This is not to trivialize in any way for a second the people whose lives are negatively affected by drugs to point out that just, as a matter of fact, they are a relatively small minority.
The figure I talk about that’s in the book is that for every 100,000 people who use alcohol, 650 die. For every 100,000 people who use cocaine, 4 die. And again, the science has been systematically distorted about this. This is, by the way, not a pro-cocaine argument or a pro-alcohol argument. I don’t like either of those drugs. But no one would find it odd that I don’t like alcohol and I’m not in favor of alcohol prohibition. I don’t like cocaine. I’m not in favor of cocaine prohibition.
The World Health Organization conducted a massive study in the 1990s on cocaine and found that addiction is rare. The American government said, if you publish this, we will pull all our funding from the WHO, and so that report was never published. We only know what it said because one of the scientists involved leaked it. That tells you something about the distortion that’s gone on. There’s a great quote from Harry Anslinger. He said at one point, “I have made up my mind: Don’t try to confuse me with the facts.” And I think that’s the overarching motto of the drug war. You start with this theological belief that there are these evil substances that hijack people, and then you make up your mind and you don’t want to be confused with the facts.
MH: One of the things that I found really perceptive is towards the end of the book you compare ending the drug war to the gay rights movements of the late 60s. Why do you do that? What’s the comparison here?
JH: There are two stories I would tell about that: One is the gay rights one. (I’m gay, by the way.) In 1969, when the Stonewall riot happened, there’s been 2000 years of gay people being horrifically persecuted. And a bunch of drag queens start a riot, and some of those people who started that riot lived to see the introduction of gay marriage. They didn’t even ask for gay marriage at that moment. It would have seemed like me saying — “We want to live on Mars” — and they lived to see it. Things can change incredibly quickly in incredibly positive ways. A great example of that — and I think the story that moved me most in the book — is the story of what happened in Vancouver.
In the year 2000, there was a homeless street addict called Bud Osborn who was watching his friends die all around him. People would use behind dumpsters so cops wouldn’t see them. Obviously if the cops can’t see you, if you start to OD, you just die. And Bud thought: I’ve got to do something about this. I can’t just watch all my friends die. And he was conscious that he might die that way as well. But he also thought: Look, I’m a homeless junkie. What can I do? And he had this very simple idea. He got together a group of the addicts and said: When we’re not using — which is most of the time, even for quite hardcore addicts — why don’t we have a timetable. We’ll just patrol the alleyways, and when we spot someone ODing, we’ll call an ambulance. Really simple. Not any officials, not any medical professionals, just us: We’ll just do it ourselves.
And they started to do it. And it goes on for a few months, and the overdose rates started to quite significantly fall. Which was great in itself, but it also meant the addicts started to think about themselves differently. They thought: Maybe we’re not the pieces of shit everyone says we are. Maybe we can do things. So they formed an organization, and they started to turn up at public meetings to discuss the menace of the addicts, and they would sit in the back and after a while, they’d pop up their hand, and go: Oh, I think you’re talking about us. Is there anything we can do differently? And people were initially baffled.
One of the things they learned was that in Frankfurt, Germany, they’d set up safe injecting rooms, where addicts could go and use and be monitored by medical professionals, and it had almost ended overdose deaths in Frankfurt. And they thought we’ve got to do this here, but there had never been anything like that in North America since the start of the drug war. So they decided to start literally stalking the mayor of Vancouver, Philip Owen, everywhere he went — with a coffin. And the coffin said something like, “Who will die next, Philip Owen, before you open a safe injecting room?”
Philip Owen was a right-wing business man from a very rich family — think Mitt Romney — who knew nothing about addiction and had said the addicts should be taken and detained at the local military base. That was where he came from. And for two years they follow him around, and they start to get a bit disheartened because people are still dying the whole time, nothing’s been done. And one day, to his eternal credit, Philip Owen just says: Who are these people? He’s just completely baffled by it, and he goes incognito to the downtown east side and he just spent a load of time with addicts. And he was totally blown away. He just didn’t know anything about it. And he thought: My god, these people … their lives are terrible.
Then he went and met Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist who is fantastic on this issue, partly because he’d grown up under alcohol prohibition in Chicago as a kid and had always seen the flaws in prohibition. And Philip Owen comes back and he holds a press conference with the chief of police and a coroner and a representative of the addicts, and he says: I’m never going to talk about addicts again without one of them being present because they know better than me. Then he announces that he’s going to open the first safe injecting room in North America and have the most compassionate drug policy in North America. And he says that things are going to change. The injecting room opened, and Philip Owen was deselected by his own right-wing party because they were so appalled by what he did. He lost his job, but he was replaced by someone who kept the room open.
When I went to the downtown east side, where they opened the injecting room, it was 10 years since it opened. Again, the results were in. Deaths from overdose were down by 80 percent, and average life expectancy in that neighborhood was up by 10 years. And Philip Owen said to me it was the proudest thing he ever did, and he would do it all again. He would sacrifice his whole career again.
But they will never go back to what they had before in Vancouver. The Canadian Supreme Court, as a direct result of his activism, ruled that addicts have a right to life and that includes a safe injecting room.
You know, if he can do it, we can do it. And you know the one thing you can say for the war on drugs, in its defense, is we gave it a fair shot. No one can say we haven’t tried. We threw a trillion dollars and a hell of a lot of people’s lives at this war. And there’s a better way waiting for us when we’re ready to choose it.
MH: Let’s finish on the United States then. How optimistic are you that things are going to change?
JH: Hugely optimistic, hugely optimistic. I’m optimistic for many reasons. I mean, it depends on how well people like us do our job now, right? Because what has to happen is a mass movement exactly like what happened with gay rights — a mass movement of ordinary citizens demanding it. This will never be delivered by the politicians. They will respond to the pressure put on them — that’s all they’ll ever do. So, I’m optimistic for several reasons: First, because the Colorado and Washington results are so positive. But secondly, because the drug war has so demonstrably failed, and the alternatives are so obviously better. They’re better for a whole range of reasons.
So they formed an organization, and they started to turn up at public meetings to discuss the menace of the addicts, and they would sit in the back and after a while, they’d pop up their hand, and go: Oh, I think you’re talking about us. Is there anything we can do differently? And people were initially baffled.
It’s very interesting to me to think about how we persuade people to end the drug war in the United States. I think it’s very important to learn the lessons of the Swiss referenda — there were two — because Switzerland voting to legalize heroin for addicts is not like San Francisco voting to do it. It’s like Utah voting to do it. And the way they won that argument was quite different to the way that a lot of the drug reform movement has tried to win the argument up to now. And I think it’s very important we learn from them. They did not use liberty-based arguments for ending the war on drugs. What does work and is equally true — so it’s not like a rhetorical trick — is order-based arguments for ending the war on drugs. It’s explaining to people we have transferred a huge industry to armed criminal gangs. They fight a war for drugs, which is horrendously violent. They spread disease. They spread violence. They spread anarchy. Ending the drug war is a process of ending that anarchy and restoring order. It means addicts will have more ordered lives where they are much less likely to commit crime. In Liverpool, in England, when they prescribed heroin, there was a 93 percent fall in burglary. The figures were similar in Switzerland. One of the reasons it was so popular was you just saw an enormous fall in property crime. Street prostitution virtually ended.
MH: So in many ways, quality of life just drastically improved.
JH: Exactly. Crucially, not just for the addicts, that’s the crucial thing to explain. That you could not give a shit about addicts’ lives and your life will be better. We’re not wasting your money. You know we could be taking all this money and burning it in a big pile, and it would be doing as much good as it’s doing. Actually it would be better because we wouldn’t be inflicting so much misery. It saves your money, means you’re much less likely to be mugged or burgled, and gets addicts out of your line of vision. Swiss people like their nice, ordered clockwork parks, and they were being filled up with addicts and now they’re not.
So I think those conservative, order-based arguments for the drug war are super important and are the way we will unlock the constituencies who still believe in the drug war. You know, we’ve kind of got liberals on our side. There are still some concerns, and, of course, the specific mechanisms are to be debated — and should be debated — but it’s more centrist and conservative people we have to win over. And I think we can win them over. The evidence is in. Compassionate drug policies don’t just save lives and save your money — they bring order and safety, where at the moment, the drug war brings chaos and violence.
To learn more about Johann Hari and his book, go to Chasing the Scream.com.
An interview with Johann Hari, the bestselling author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”