Prohibition of alcoholic drinks was attempted in the United States from 1920 to 1933 and was abandoned because it not only failed but caused a huge surge in violent crime and human tragedy.
The War on Drugs was started in 1914 (by an obsessive racist named Harry Anslinger),
goes on at full $51-billion-a-year force, has failed at least as badly, and has caused and is causing violent crime and human tragedy around the world.
Read Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream (a not particularly clever title), published in January 2015. To say it is important is like saying the Atlantic is wide.
Inevitably something has to be said first about Johann Hari.
I became aware of him as one of the best columnists in the British newspaper I read, the Independent. He was concise and trenchant, and I usually (not always) either agreed heartily or had my eyes opened to outrages I hadn’t understood. He candidly represented himself as small, overweight, and homosexual, came from a humble background, had battled with depression, and was not long out of college. In one piece, called something like “Confessions of a Cub Columnist,” he said it wasn’t that hard to write opinion pieces, you just collect the facts on a subject and decide what you think. On the contrary, he regularly achieved wonders in marshalling the facts. His references to recent books suggested that he was a speed reader. I corresponded a bit with him (pretended to think his name might be from the Hari river beside which I had camped in Afghanistan, he told me it was Austrian). Tilly and I went to a debate during the Iraq war in which he defended (against the audience’s cheers for the popular though blustery Middle East veteran Robert Fisk) the view that it had been right to overthrow the sadistic Saddam Hussein and things were better especially in the no-fly zone that allowed the Kurds to set up a free state. Later Johann admitted, and kept on admitting, that he had been wrong – not a thing journalists often do. The Independent evidently saw that his listening skills and his sympathy for victims could be used more widely, and he was sent to places such as Bangladesh, where he described people living on muddy land that, because of climate change and sea rise and flooding from denuded mountains, was being penetrated by salt and crumbling into the water.
Alas, Johann, still young, made two mistakes unworthy of his intelligence. He put direct-speech quotation marks around words that people hadn’t actually spoken to him, but that represented what he believed they thought and could have said. Not a towering sin – it was the method used extensively and famously by Thucydides – but a betrayal of the rules of modern journalism. If he’d done it to me I would have laughed and been glad of the chance to issue a correction. Much worse, Johann removed things he didn’t like from the Wikipedia article about himself and tinkered with the Wikipedia articles about other people, and, predictably, was caught.
How he came to do this is probably a psychological story that could be told by a novelist, or by Johann with his wonderful ability to express people’s stories. He didn’t do that, just apologized. The Independent treated him with a leniency that no other paper would have shown: he was to go to journalism school and be suspended from his job for a year or so. A needed voice was gone. I looked forward to his return, and from time to time wrote and asked when it was going to happen, but it didn’t. Once I looked at his web site; it existed, but no articles had been added. I wondered where he was, and someone said “I think he’s gone to France.” That sounded like Oscar Wilde after his fall.
No more, till I was shown the review of Johann’s sudden book in the Guardian of January 2, 2015.
Instead of licking his wounds in France like Oscar Wilde, Hari had set himself to study the worldwide issue of narcotic drugs, no doubt because he had known addicts and had had to fight off addiction himself.
He traveled and traveled, pored in libraries, listened over and over to the hours of his taped interviews, managed to talk with high officials, scientists, prisoners in bleak cells from which they would never emerge, and junkies and murderers in filthy streets where the gang leaders’ young “expendables” come by to shoot or worse. The un-fit little man, who was not proud of his diet of hamburgers and coffee, was brave.
(I saw him recently at a public occasion, gave him a copy of all this and asked him to let me know if he objects, he didn’t reply so I assume he doesn’t.)
The standard theory of addiction is that once you’ve taken more than a certain amount of substances like heroin and cocaine, they chemically affect your brain, they “hijack” it and you can’t stop craving them. It’s been proved. Rats given access to a supply of morphine keep drinking it, neglecting nutrition, till they drop dead.
Bruce Alexander, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, showed that this was true only because the rats were kept in cages like prisoners in isolation cells. Those kept in his “Rat Park,” with plenty of space, food, toys, and the society of other rats with whom they could play and mate, took no interest in the drug. Rats that had become addicted in the isolation cages, then were moved to “Rat Park,” almost all lost their addiction.
Extend it to human beings. Of the thousands of American soldiers who, traumatized by their experiences in the Vietnam war, became drug addicts, only 17.3 percent on returning to home society failed to escape their addiction. It was an unintended experiment with an unusually large set of data, essentially proving that 17.3 percent of the cause of addiction is the chemical effect of the drugs, 82.7 percent the misery.
To stigmatize and punish drug addicts – to put them in a concentration camp, as is done in Arizona – is like sending rats back from “Rat Park” into their miserable isolation cells, ensuring that they will die addicted.
I’m not a speed reader, and thought it worthwhile to get the audio version of Hari’s book, was somewhat daunted to see “19 hours,” but found that isn’t long if you listen at tea-times. I recommend it. The reader, an actor whose regular voice is an upperclass British that doesn’t suggest Johann Hari, was nevertheless able to mark off each bit of direct speech by falling into voices, mostly American, that range from ranting politicians to quietly despondent black women. And as I heard the spoken emphasis on some of Hari’s sentences, I pictured them in print and realized that I might have passed over their significance. The trouble with an audio book is that you can’t riffle back to look up some name or date, so I bought the real book too.
I live with someone who helps to coordinate Amnesty International’s work on Mexico, has had to lead a conference and give a presentation on torture in Mexico. Amnesty documents the endless killings of women, the attacks on migrants, the collusion between the authorities (police, army, officials) and the cartels, the impunity, and issues its recommendations. The government makes placatory noises but nothing improves, because of the savage power of the drug cartels, which is due to the price of drugs.
If drugs were provided to those who have become dependent on them, in safety by medical personnel, the bottom would drop out of the illegal drug market and the gangsters would have to find another way of making a living.
It is overwhelmingly clear that the horrors of the drug wars are caused by the War on Drugs itself, and will not end until policy moves from criminalizing to non-punitive treatment, as in the few places that have already done so – Portugal, Uruguay, Colorado and Washington states.