Johann Hari's 'Chasing the Scream' details the disastrous history, and possible end, of the war on drugs

City Paper

Early last year, when people started talking seriously again about the decriminalization of marijuana, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that she should not be “waving the Schmoke flag of legalization.” She was referring to former mayor Kurt Schmoke, who in the 1980s recommended the legalization of all drugs to Congress. Though it is a strange turn of phrase, it seems clear that the flag in “Schmoke flag” is referring to a flag of surrender, building on the terminology of the drug war. 

Johann Hari’s important and beautifully written new book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” (Bloomsbury) looks at the logic behind Rawlings-Blake’s defensive and reflexive use of martial language and the more compassionate medical mindset of Schmoke’s approach.

Hari’s book seems to borrow the structure of Gay Talese’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” which begins with parallel portraits of Diane Webber, Harold Rubin, and Hugh Hefner in order to show the radical reversal in sexual attitudes that occurred around the middle of the last century. In the same way, Hari’s book follows drug-war architect Harry J. Anslinger, singer Billie Holiday, and gangster Arnold Rothstein as the three paradigmatic figures whose patterns all prohibitionists, addicts, and dealers would respectively follow. 

Hari, who reads at Red Emma’s on Feb. 4,  shows that when Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was born from the Department of Prohibition, it was about to go bust. His budget had just been cut by $700,000 and, fighting for the very existence of his agency, he started an unprecedented effort to eradicate psychoactive chemicals—especially marijuana, cocaine, and heroin—from the world forever, partially by linking them to minority groups and race panic. This was his one lifelong obsession (though in his later days, he actually supplied Joseph McCarthy with heroin and ended his own life on morphine)—which was coupled with a parallel obsession with the Mafia. Ironically, Anslinger was successful in forcing almost every other country in the world to adopt the U.S.-led drug war and, as a result, did perhaps more than anyone else to strengthen organized crime.

Hari also shows, in one of the book’s more dramatic claims, that Anslinger was obsessed with the Baltimore-raised Billie Holiday and intentionally set out to destroy her. The passages where we find Anslinger’s men effectively killing Holiday as they take her off of methadone and bar her family from the room where they have her chained to a bed are as heartbreaking as Lady Day’s songs. 

Hari’s portrait of Rothstein—who learned that to profit from the newly illegal drugs, you had to be ruthless and rule by fear—unless you wanted to actually fight every other gangster—is equally incisive. Just as Anslinger’s ever-escalating enforcement and Holiday’s addiction, Rothstein’s methods grow exponentially, since the new drug lord is always, by definition, more ruthless than the last (compare, for instance, Avon Barksdale with Marlo Stanfield in “The Wire”). “You have no recourse to the law to protect your most valuable pieces of property—your drug supply—so you have to make damn sure people show you respect and stay out of your way. ” 

All three of these escalations have created an unparalleled disaster around the world. Hari cites Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron showing that the two greatest spikes in the U.S. murder rate came between 1920 and 1933—during alcohol prohibition—and between 1970 and 1990—when drug prohibition was at its height. Miron argues that if you “take the drug trade away from criminals” it would “reduce the homicide rate in the U.S. between 25 and 75 percent.” And Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning right-wing economist, “calculated that it [the drug war] caused an additional ten thousand murders a year in the United States.” To remind us what that means, Hari points out that is “more than three 9/11s every single year.”

Though dominated by Anslinger, Rothstein, and Holiday, Hari’s book is populated by a series of other fascinating characters on the fringes of society and the front lines of the drug war. There is Chino, the gregarious transgender dealer and crack user who was conceived when a police officer raped his mother. And Leigh Maddox, who decided to be a cop in Baltimore after her friend Lisa was raped and murdered by a drug gang. After she infiltrated the Klu Klux Klan in Elkton, she began to wonder if the way she spent most of her time—pulling over people on I-95 and arresting them for drugs—was part of a racist system that allows the U.S. to imprison four times as many black men per 100,000 than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. “Leigh began to see the act of pulling over a car to search it in a new way. Once she saw this scene as a soldier in a just war approaching the enemy. Now she sees it as a meeting of people who are surrounded by ghosts”—of all the officers or family members whose lives have been lost in this war. “Neither can see the other side’s ghosts. They can only hate.” Now, Maddox fights against the drug war. 

There’s the kid, nicknamed Bart Simpson, who learned how to behead people, among other things, at a summer camp run by the Juárez cartels, and the other brave souls in that city who dress like angels and appear at the site of every execution there in silent protest. And then there’s the junkie in Vancouver who organized all the other junkies and began attending city hearings and meetings demanding to be heard—and as a result saved thousands of lives. 

Vast reams of research back up the stories of these people. The desire for intoxication, much of this research shows, is almost universal. And 90 percent of people who use drugs do not become addicted. The addiction is not due to the chemical simply “highjacking” one’s brain. Rather, most of the time, some people become addicts when others do not because of childhood trauma or other severe pain that they use drugs to escape. Hari suggests using the word “bonding” rather than addiction. When humans lack other bonds, they bond with chemicals. The solution is not judgment, arrest, and further isolation—but rather deeper bonding and understanding. 

It is a compelling argument and, as someone who was arrested for small bits of weed three times during high school alone, one I am deeply sympathetic to. But weed is one thing, the reader is tempted to say; what about heroin and crack? They are deadly. Anyone who walks around Baltimore sees the devastation caused by these harder drugs. Hari himself is surprised by the answers to this question. He shows that, outside of the conditions of prohibition, both cocaine and heroin are actually less harmful than alcohol. In instances where heroin or cocaine are prescribed, the addicts are able to live fulfilling and productive lives. 

It’s hard not to come away from this book wondering what Baltimore would look like now if we had adopted Schmoke’s plan more than 25 years ago and hoping that finally, as Washington state and Colorado have fully legalized, and not just decriminalized, marijuana, that we can shake ourselves free of Anslinger’s obsessions once and for all.


Johan Hari will speak at Red Emma's at 7:30 p.m. on Feb 4. For more information, please visit redemmas.org.

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