Not a Crime but a Misery-Reliever

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),

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.

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.


7 thoughts on “Not a Crime but a Misery-Reliever”

  1. I was hooked into reading by the playing of the racist card with respect to Harry Anslinger. Didn’t find anything in the post supporting the claim though. I think some hot button words are too easy for writers to shoot with.

    1. Curtis, I was also hooked into reading with Guy’s description of Harry Anslinger! The Wikipedia article on him does offer some insight into the claim, but what I found more interesting is that Anslinger, who was for several decades the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started out in the 1920’s with the opinion that marijuana was basically harmless. However (the Wikipedia article writer insinuates), he did a complete 180 as soon as alcohol prohibition was repealed because as head of the FBN, he needed some other “just cause” to crusade against. That cause turned out to be the campaign against marijuana, assuring that with the Sisyphean task of prohibiting the use of a drug, his agency would remain funded in perpetuity.

      Several years ago I saw a 60 minutes segment featuring an interview with a former military general who had recently been put in some kind of cyber warfare position within our government. He dutifully described all of the dire threats the nation faces from cyber criminals and nation-state actors and probably extra-terrestrials as well, and to me the whole thing reeked of a PR plea for more money for his organization, just like Anslinger. “Give my organization money because you need us to protect you from these dire threats that we told you about!”

  2. I cant find the research but I remember hearing that the percentage of the population that abuses heroin has remained steady; both when it was still legal and after it became illegal. I may have heard that from a libertarian politician that advocated legalization of heroin. If someone wants to use heroin, they’ll find a way, whether it is legal or not.

    I think that the cause of drug use and abuse comes from the idea that when life gets difficult, drugs make everything better. Medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies consistently promote this idea. I think drug use should be limited to anesthesia for surgery or trauma, life or death situations, or end of life scenarios.

  3. Washington and Colorado have legalized only pot. This will do nothing for Columbia, Mexico, …. You gotta kill the drug laws period.

  4. Similar to gun violence–so many underlying factors feeding a never-ending cycle of grief. I think I will definitely be checking out this book.

  5. Thank you for this. I feel like writing volumes, but am happy to realize you have said it all, better than I ever could.

  6. Recently I heard author Maia Szalavitz interviewed about her new book _Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction_ (2016, St. Martin’s Press). Szalavitz is a journalist who has been reporting on the drug wars for 30 years, and she herself was addicted to heroin and cocaine for several years in her youth. I haven’t read the book, but I was impressed by her argument that addiction is a multifactorial process, and that kindness and compassion are the best approach, not just on humanitarian grounds, but because they save lives and are the most effective way of helping people quit or moderate their use.

    Here in the US there is a very good organization, the Harm Reduction Coalition, working to develop and promote effective, evidence-based, non-punitive approaches to reducing the harm caused by intoxicating substances and our misguided drug laws.

    In my work as a clinical social worker in a public mental health clinic, I work every day with people who have had problems with substances. I have never seen anybody helped by spending time in jail for their substance use. Often people are more traumatized and less capable of caring for themselves after incarceration. Putting people in jail for substance abuse is, at the very least, a tremendous waste of money.

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