We Have Gotten the Story of Drugs Wrong; Johann Hari Sets it Right.

Chasing the Scream, published 2015, dives into the stories of those effected by the drug war, and discusses compelling evidence, that maybe the current approach to drugs, has perpetuated more problems than solutions.

I purchased Chasing the Scream after hearing Johan Hari speak on a podcast, I resonated deeply with how Hari spoke about the drug war. It struck a chord when he talked about how instead of helping the weakest links within society (drug addicts), we oppress, criminalize and perpetuate it through prohibition and widespread mis-understanding of what drug addiction is. Chasing the scream challenges the prominent understanding of addiction and the drug war, and discusses how prohibition has failed, and that drug addiction is not what it seems. 

This book inspires hope. It reads like a narrative; I found myself reading the pages twice over, in a constant battle of never wanting to put it down but also never wanting to finish it. This book critically engages with the drug war in a way I’ve never been exposed to. As Hari shares the stories of the people most affected by the drug war, he reminds me of what it’s all truly meant to be about; helping those suffering with addiction. Chasing the Scream delivers painful truths about the effects of prohibition, and asks, with full capability of answering; have we gotten the story of drug addiction, wrong?

Drug addiction, as Hari poetically explains, is the disease of loneliness. He discovers addicts use their chosen substance, to repress an unbearable pain that they otherwise couldn’t live with. Hari’s work invites readers to draw a steady line of compassion to addicts. The stigma placed upon them is lifted by his words, like a curtain being pulled up to expose addicts for what they really are; human.

The story of the War on Drugs in the context of today’s world, seems simple; we are taught that they are bad for us, can and will destroy our lives, and therefore should be banned. Hari goes beyond this; re-telling the history of how these views came about only 100 years ago. And along the way, finds the nature of prohibition, problematic. Illegal substances (like opioids) cannot be regulated like they were in the 1914-America, where they were available over the pharmacist counter in forms of cough medicine, in much smaller (and safer) doses. Hari’s book examines how prohibition has let them spin out of control, taking many victims with it.

Hari explains that through prohibition, a new job title has been created; drug dealers. A career with no pre-requisites, left for those without the care and knowledge of doctors. A career that is banned, leaving them no choice but to use violence and crime to protect their stock and themselves. And because these substances are banned; they are packing more punch than the ones previously sold over the counter. Hari relates this back to when Alcohol prohibition took place in America during the 1920s. When alcohol was prohibited, beer was no longer an option. Instead people drank hard liquor; backyard spirits, with no helpful label clarifying how much or what was really in it. This is alarming. It means that those addicted to illegal substances, can’t really knowwhat or how much they are taking, and could even die from overdose. Like many have already.

While writing this book, Hari essentially chases the scream across the world, finding himself in Vancouver; learning about an uprising of drug addicts, to Uruguay, where the legalization of cannabis has helped to deter drug cartels from the country, and to Sweden and Portugal; which have both decriminalized drug possession and now allocate funding to education and recovery, rather than for arresting and incarceration. Hari interviews both ends of the drug war; politicians and doctors, addicts and dealers, and attributes all sources and interviews in the extensive 60-page reference chapter, as well as to his website. 

While Chasing the Scream offers stunning journalism, with information that could entice great change; it is important to recognize its downfalls. Hari is able cover the subject of drug addiction so vividly because he has personally been affected by it. While his passion is one of the book’s strongest qualities; allowing the reader to truly connect, it also comes across as a touch dramatic at times. While I enjoyed the way Hari writes, his passion and poetic tendency sometimes leave the book in a grey area between academic and narrative; journalism and personal account. Don’t let this comment deter you away however, I also believe that Hari’s connection to the subject truly gives it the weight and compassion it deserves.

Chasing the Scream beautifully analyses everything I have been taught about illegal drugs and has opened up a new window to view it out of; a window of understanding and heart break, exposing where the true tragedies lie on both ends of the drug war. This book will be shoved into the faces of everyone I know with my personal sticker of approval. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in drug culture and learning about the underlying truths never discussed about it. This book currently holds the number-one spot in my personal library and I can’t wait to read more of Hari’s work. 


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