The other thing he is sure of after having spent 3 years traveling through more than 15 countries researching the topic is that “everything we believe about addiction is wrong.”
Imagine a book club where Naomi Klein, Elton John and Noam Chomsky talk about the last book that they read. And that book would be “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johann Hari.
Naomi Klein said: “Superb journalism and thrilling story-telling.”
Elton John opined: “An absolutely stunning book. It will blow people away.”
And Noam Chomsky enthusiastically affirmed: “Wonderful… I couldn’t put it down.”
You probably already opened a new tab to see what this book is about. But wait. Here we tell you.
War on Drugs
Johann (37) is an English journalist that in one moment of his life began to think about the topic of drug addiction. The reason was more personal than journalistic. He began to look into it. He discovered that the so-called “War on Drugs”, the global strategy pushed by the United States and later exported by force to Mexico and the rest of Latin America in order to attack the problem with guns and jails , was entering its 100th year.
And in large parts of the world, despite the enormous quantity of studies and scientific evidence that has come out in the past century, the way to deal with this problem continues to be the same and it is a surprise to nobody that the problem has been much more complex than they thought at the beginning.
A total incongruence, any way you look at it. With a passion for journalism and the fire from a topic that was personally burning in him, Johann embarked on a 3 year trip across 15 countries looking for answers.
This book is the result.
“Everything that we believe we know about addiction is wrong, drugs are not what we think they are and the same goes for the War on Drugs.”
We spoke with Johann so he could tell us his conclusions.
“One of the reasons I was researching this topic for so long was because my first memory as a child is of trying to wake up an uncle that I thought was sleeping and I wasn’t able to. After that I found out that there were drug addiction problems in my family”, he started off by telling us.
As we already said: nobody investigates a topic so deeply if they do not have an equally deep connection to it.
“When I began, sort of arrogantly, I believe that I knew a lot about this, but I realized that I did not know even the answers to the most basic questions”, he recognizes. “These are what they were” and he enumerates them showing his fingers on Skype: “Why did we begin a war a hundred years ago against drug addicts and consumers of drugs? Why do we continue it if it has been a disaster? What alternatives exist to this strategy? What causes people to become addicted to drugs?” Johann throws out, before we even have a chance to respond, four important questions.
Johann lanza, antes que nosotros tiremos ninguna, cuatro preguntas al hilo. Antes de que terminamos de traducir mentalmente, sigue hablando.
“I wanted to sit down with people that had really been a part of this, that had seen their lives affected by the whole thing. I went to 15 countries and I met a bunch of people – a crazy, strange and different mix: from a crack dealer in Brooklyn to a hit man for one of the most violent cartels in Juarez, Mexico. I went to Portugal, the only country in the world that has decriminalized the consumption of all drugs, with surprising results. The biggest conclusion I came to is that everything we believe about addiction is wrong: drugs are not what we think they are, and neither is the War on Drugs.”
Let’s start from the beginning. How and why did this War on Drugs begin?
It’s pretty interesting, because I thought the same as any person you would ask in the street right now: that it was because they did not want people to become addicts, or for kids to consume drugs. But no, it had nothing to do with that. It was fascinating for me to learn the story of Harry Anslinger, who is the creator of the war “War on Drugs”. He became the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the United States, just when prohibition was ending. He had a big department and a great job but nothing to do. So he basically invented this war so that his department would stick around. He did it by focusing on the three most hated things in the world, which were African-Americans, Latinos and drug addicts. He built an entire bureaucracy based on strong social prejudices in order to oppress these groups.
When they prohibit drugs, they don’t disappear, they only go into the hands of doctors and the drug companies, as well as armed narcos, and then the USA blames Mexico for this.
How did Latin America become part of this policy?
“When they prohibit drugs, they don’t disappear, they only go into the hands of doctors and the drug companies, as well as armed narcos, and then the USA blames Mexico for this, which is pretty ironic if you see that now, one hundred years later, Trump built his campaign around this idea.”
That is the heart of the War on Drugs. When they prohibit drugs, they don’t disappear, they only go into the hands of doctors and the drug companies, as well as armed narcos, and then the USA blames Mexico for this, which is pretty ironic if you see that now, one hundred years later, Trump built his campaign around this idea. The government of Mexico, in the moment when it all began, did something intelligent and brave. They said to the US: “We see what you are doing, but it does not work.” Then they put Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra in charge of drug policy. He had a rehab center, he knew the subject well. So he says: “Cannabis is truly not destructive, we should not prohibit it. With regards to the problem with other drugs, we need to give addicts love, compassion and treatment. But we do not need to prohibit drugs because if we do that, drugs are going to be controlled by dealers, gangsters and cartels.” If there is somebody in the world that history has proven right it is Leopoldo Salazar, right?
The response of the USA was: remove him. Mexico said that they believed him, and so the USA, true to its style, began to threaten Mexico and in revenge stopped exporting to Mexico the opiates of legal medicine that were made in the USA. And people began to die. So Mexico had to give in. Thus the War on Drugs expanded to all of Latin America.
One Hundred Years of a Failed War
Why does the war continue? Who wins with this?
“There are two ways to respond to this: first is that obviously there are those who benefit from this war. First, in the United States they are voting to legalize marijuana in some states. Those that finance the campaigns against these measures are the businesses that produce alcohol, because they don’t want the competition; the prison guards’ unions, because if there are fewer prisoners they can lose their jobs; and the evangelical groups for ideological reasons. And well there are other groups that, of course, do not support these measures: the cartels.”
Sound pretty logical. They have their interests.
“Of course, that is why I believe the main reason the one hundred year failed war continues is because in Chile, Great Britain or United States, there is a majority that supports prohibition. When public opinion changes, politics changes, so it is about explaining well to people what the other options are and how they can be successful. The first thing is that there is nothing abstract or theoretical in the alternatives. In Colorado they legalized marijuana, making it just like alcohol. You can only consume it if you are over 21. There are strong penalties for those who sell to minors. They pay taxes. It is regulated. And now even the DEA says that cartel activity has almost disappeared. Consumption has not increased that much and it even went down for adolescents. They have revenue from the taxes. It has been a success. It is not a theory. It works. Legalizing other drugs means doing other things because there are other objectives.”
Are there successful examples of the legalization of other drugs?
“When we talk about legalizing drugs, people get sacred and think that we are talking about being able to buy crack in a store and it is not like that.”
When we talk about legalizing drugs, people get sacred and think that we are talking about being able to buy crack in a store and it is not like that. Of course nobody wants that. I’ll give you an example. In Switzerland, in the 1980s, they had a terrible problem with heroin. They tried to throw all the addicts in jail. They declared war. And the problem got worse. Later came Ruth Dreifuss, who was a great president, and she explained it to the Swiss like this: one thinks that legalization means anarchy and chaos but the real anarchy and chaos is fighting a war against drugs because you have criminals in the shadows, selling chemicals which nobody knows what they are, and you have drug addicts also in the shadows. All this causes a mix of violence, sickness, death and chaos. Legalization is the way to give order to this chaos. What they did was to open heroin clinics. They looked like hair saloons. The doctor sends you. You go very early. A nurse injects you and monitors you and then you go to your job. They help you find a house, a job, all of that, and it turns out that since then nobody, zero, literally nobody, has died from an overdose of legal heroin. Crime fell also. The Swiss are very conservative, my dad is from there, and I swear that it is not San Francisco. And well, ten years later they held a referendum to see if they should continue with this policy and 70% of people said yes because it decreased crime, death, and sickness. It is a pattern that you see everywhere.
It sounds similar to what they did in Paris, with the injecting rooms.
They have them in Vancouver, Geneva, and yes, in Paris they are essential and reduce the number of deaths but they are only the beginning of the alternative. France took a big step because they have terrible drug policies. But the thing is that to obtain drugs they still have to buy them from armed drug dealers that continue to inject violence at all stages of the production chain. If you legalize drugs, you take drug dealers out of the game and interrupt the cycle of violence. You don’t see an executive at Heineken shooting the manager of Smirnoff in the face but drug traffickers do shoot and kill all the time. That violence is replicated in all parts of the world. The War against Drugs creates a war for drugs. There are more people that have died from this in Colombia and Mexico than with the war and refugee crisis in Syria. And it is striking how little we talk about the number of dead that this war has brought to these countries, and which was imposed on them. We could end this violence quickly, send the Chapo and the Zetas into bankruptcy. Where are the gangsters that sold illegal alcohol in Chicago? They don’t exist!
Tell us about the case of Portugal. You mention it in the book.
Portugal did not legalize. It decriminalized drugs, which means that they do not punish consumers but they still have to get their drugs from dealers. When you legalize, this means you create a way to obtain them legally. The most crude way to say it is that decriminalization is to end “Orange is the New Black” and to legalize is to end “Breaking Bad”. What Portugal did is important and with great results but they only dealt with half of the problem. In the 1990s they had 1% of the population addicted to heroin. Each year they intensified the American way but things got worse. One day the prime minister got together with the leader of the opposition and said “let’s get scientists and doctors together to talk about this”. One hundred years later finally someone had the idea to invite them to the debate and they put together a panel with Joel Gulao, an incredible doctor. They looked at and analyzed the evidence and said “let’s stop punishing consumers now, and let’s use the money that we are using to arrest them and to destroy their lives to instead help these people.”
The first thing they did was a big job creation program. For example, if you are a mechanic and you lost your job because of drugs, they would go to an auto shop and get you a job. They say to the owner “hire this person and we will pay half of the salary”. The other thing they did was to create mico-loan programs so that people could create their own jobs. The objective was to tell the addicts that they wanted to help them. Three years later, the consumption of intravenous drugs decreased 80%, AIDS dropped massively and overdoses too. Nobody in Portugal wants to go back. Juan Figuera was the one who was most opposed to decriminalization. When I spoke with him, he told me “everything that I said was going to happen did not happen. In fact the opposite did.” It was very moving. But the next step is legalization.
What does causes addiction? You have the theory that it is not drugs. This was interesting to us.
If give years ago you had asked me what caused addiction to heroin, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot and I would have said “heroin, obviously”. It is the story they have told us forever. If you take one hundred people, you put them in a room and you give them heroin, they will all likely become heroin addicts because there are chemical factors that cause physical addiction. But, for example, if in Canada or Great Britain you get hit by a car and they take you to the hospital, for the pain they are going to give you a bunch of Diamorphine, which is the medical name for heroin. If you know someone from those countries and their grandmother has had a hip operation, she has consumed a ton of heroin.
Everybody who ends up in the hospital would be addicts but it is not like that. That sounds strange but I finally understood it. I met Bruce Alexander in Vancouver, a professor of psychology that explained to me the dominant theory of addiction, and this says that addiction is caused by chemical hooks. This comes from experiments that were done in the 1920s and are fairly simple. Whoever is reading this interview could do it, if they feel a bit sadistic. You take a rat and you put it in a cage and you give it water and water with cocaine. It is most likely that the rat will prefer water with cocaine and it will become an addict and drink it until it dies. Ok. That is the story. It makes sense. But in the 1970s Alexander came along and said “Ok but they put the rat by itself, without anything to do, inside a cage, and that happens. But what happens if we create a rat society, still in a cage but with many rats so that they can make friends and have a lot of sex and a lot of cheese, and colorful balls to chew on, games, etc. Everything that would make a rat happy. If in this situation you put normal water and water with cocaine…First they tried both but what happened is that almost none of them chose to continue drinking the water with drugs. But nobody died from drinking it. That explains it pretty well.
So the context is the most important factor?
What I get from that is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection. The crux of addiction is not wanting to be present in your own life, because your life is too painful a place. Because of this the war on drugs failed, because if what causes addiction is pain and isolation, how are we going to cure them if we cause them more pain and isolation? The evidence says that what gets somebody out of addiction is to re-establish deep and meaningful relations in their lives. That is what Portugal did as a society.
The world owes Latin America an apology.
How has the reception of your book been?
Since it came out I have traveled quite a lot. What most excites me is how people with addiction problems and their relatives have told me that this helped them to think about the problem in a different way. One person told me that it was the first time that they felt that they didn’t have to be ashamed to be an addict. An older lady told me that she had a drug addict brother with whom she was very angry and whom she hadn’t seen in seven years and that after reading the book she invited him to eat.
Have you received criticism from people that have a different opinion about the War on Drugs?
Each day it is harder to find somebody who defends it, unless they are being paid. I think that to be fair, they have given a good fight for one hundred years: they spent a trillion dollars, they killed thousands and thousands of people, they threw two million people in jail, and they can’t even keep drugs out of prisons. That gives you a pretty good idea of how successful the strategy of keeping them out of society has been. I think that is why they try to use abstract arguments, morals, saying that drugs are immoral, but to me the what is immoral is causing millions of deaths in a war that they will never win and allowing vulnerable and poor people to become drug addicts. Particularly in Latin America I think that they feel that this has been a catastrophe. I was excited to hear that an advisor to President Santos in Colombia read my book and that it made sense to him. I said the world owed them an apology, and in one of the book launch parties, a young woman stood up and was emotional and she told me nobody has ever said that. We have always had to be the ones to say sorry. That was very emotional. I think that what we have done to Latin America has been terrible to an unimaginable extreme, but it can end. The alternative is here.
What Mujica did in Uruguay was very inspiring for the world.
.How do you see the current situation of the continent?
What Mujica did in Uruguay was very inspiring for the world. When I did the book launch in Mexico, there were two Mexican politicians that are in favor of legalization, and they had to be with armed bodyguards because the greatest enemies of legalization are the cartels. They are the ones who most want to defend the War on Drugs. In Colombia, Santos has said that the War on Drugs needs to end. I think that Latin America, the place that has had to suffer for this failed policy, could be the place that shows the world how to change everything. In the end, if we had listened to Leopoldo Salazar from the beginning, we would have saved all this. There would not have been a Pablo Escobar, for example. When all this ends I think we have to erect a statue to Salazar. This war is something that never had to happen. But above all, it does not have to continue.