Part 2: Johann Hari on Everything We Know About the Drug War & Addiction is Wrong

February 06, 2015
Web Exclusive


Johann Hari

British journalist and the author of the new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

Watch Part 2 of our conversation with British journalist Johann Hari about the century-old failed drug war and how much of what we know about addiction is wrong. Over the past four years, Hari has traveled to the United States, Mexico, Canada, Uruguay and Portugal to research his new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War of Drugs.

Click here to watch Part 1 of the interview.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Our guest is Johann Hari. Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is his book. I want to turn right now to the Canadian physician, Dr. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. I interviewed him in 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this whole approach of criminalization versus harm reduction, how you think addicts should be treated, and how they are, in the United States and Canada?

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, the first point to get there is that if people who become severe addicts, as shown by all the studies, were for the most part abused children, then we realize that the war on drugs is actually waged against people that were abused from the moment they were born, or from an early age on. In other words, we’re punishing people for having been abused. That’s the first point.

The second point is, is that the research clearly shows that the biggest driver of addictive relapse and addictive behavior is actually stress. In North America right now, because of the economic crisis, a lot of people are eating junk food, because junk foods release endorphins and dopamine in the brain. So that stress drives addiction.

Now imagine a situation where we’re trying to figure out how to help addicts. Would we come up with a system that stresses them to the max? Who would design a system that ostracizes, marginalizes, impoverishes and ensures the disease of the addict, and hope, through that system, to rehabilitate large numbers? It can’t be done. In other words, the so-called "war on drugs," which, as the new drug czar points out, is a war on people, actually entrenches addiction deeply. Furthermore, it institutionalizes people in facilities where the care is very—where there’s no care. We call it a "correctional" system, but it doesn’t correct anything. It’s a punitive system. So people suffer more, and then they come out, and of course they’re more entrenched in their addiction than they were when they went in.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Gabor Maté, the Canadian physician, best-selling author, columnist in Canada, who for years worked at the only injection clinic, I think, in Canada. Johann Hari?

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, Gabor taught me so much on the Downtown Eastside when I spent time with him there and from his amazing writing. I think one of the fascinating things about Gabor is Gabor was himself a product of the trauma that he talks about. Gabor was smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto in the middle of the Holocaust. His mother literally hands him to a Christian stranger and says, "Take my baby. We’re going to be killed. Take my baby." And she was right. Her parents—well, she was wrong about herself, but her parents were being murdered in Auschwitz at that moment.

And as Gabor started to work with addicts on the Downtown Eastside, he noticed something—which is obviously when he got older—which was, they had all had these horrifically traumatic childhoods, like really disturbed. And Gabor himself had these quite strong addictive impulses. He would abandon women in the middle of labor, run out and buy loads of CDs, which doesn’t sound so harmful, but, you know, over time, it was problematic. And it’s interesting, because there’s very strong evidence—which, again, I learned from Gabor—that childhood trauma—this thing called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which found that for every traumatic event that happens to a child, they’re two to four times more likely to grow up to be an injecting drug user—so, stronger link between childhood trauma and addiction than there is between obesity and diabetes. This is really powerful.

And I think that that’s very related to what we were talking about earlier about Rat Park. If you have a very traumatic childhood, it’s much harder to form trusting bonds with the world. It’s much harder to connect with the people around you. You’re afraid of the world. You find it difficult and challenging. You’re much more likely to be isolated. You’re much more likely to be like the rats in the first cage than the bonded, connected rats in the second cage. So I think that’s where the connection comes. And it’s a reason, yet another reason, why we need to be really compassionate. Think about Billie Holiday. She’s raped when she’s a child. She’s prostituted when she’s a child. She needed to stun her grief, you know, and her pain.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell the story of Dr. Henry Smith Williams.

JOHANN HARI: Oh, this story blew me away. Henry Smith Williams was a doctor in California at the very birth of the drug war. We forget this now, but drugs were legal, right? He treated people when you would go to your local corner store, the equivalent of CVS, and you would buy opiate-based products or cocaine-based products. And he had patients who were addicts, and they went and bought their drugs, and they were somewhat like alcoholics today: It was problematic, no one would say it was a good thing, but they were no more likely to be criminals than anyone else. They didn’t have—you know, they almost all had jobs.

And then drugs are banned. And what he sees is, suddenly, huge transfer to—well, drugs don’t disappear when you ban them; they’re transferred to armed criminal gangs. Those armed criminal gangs kill each other, kill people getting in the way. But also, they massively jack up the price by like 1,000 percent, was the increase, because you’ve got to pay a pretty big premium if you’re asking people to risk going to prison. And suddenly these addicts would have to prostitute themselves or steal in order to get it. The health of addicts massively deteriorated. Huge numbers of them started to die.

But what’s incredible about Henry Smith Williams is he kind of sees it all coming. He writes this amazing book called Drug Addicts are Human Beings, in which he says, you know, we would never do this, but if we were so foolish as to carry this policy for another 50 years, we’ll have a $5 billion smuggling industry in the United States. He was right to almost the exact year. And the same man who destroys Billie Holiday, Harry Anslinger, destroys Henry Smith Williams.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain again how [Harry] Anslinger destroys Billie Holiday.

JOHANN HARI: Well, Harry Anslinger sends agents to stalk her.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was?

JOHANN HARI: He was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, so the—he’s basically the founder of the modern war on drugs. He destroys Billie Holiday. He destroys Henry Smith Williams. He creates the marijuana hysteria that persists to this day. Very interesting, he had initially said—when he takes over the Department of Prohibition, and it’s got nothing to do because prohibition is ending, he had initially said, "Cannabis isn’t very harmful. I’ve got no problem with it." Suddenly he announces cannabis is worse than heroin, when he realizes it’s going to give his department a purpose.

He latches onto a really fascinating case of a boy called Victor Licata in Florida, who—I think he was in his early twenties, and he hacked his family to death with an axe. And Henry—I’m sorry, Harry Anslinger announced, "This is what will happen if you use marijuana. You’ll hack your family to death with an axe." He announces that, you know, it’s—I mean, you read the statements from him, and it’s kind of incredible. It’s a huge hysteria, led by Anslinger and the Fox News of its day, Hearst Newspapers, announcing this.

Years later, someone goes back and looks at the psychiatric records of this guy. There’s no evidence he even used marijuana. His family had congenital insanity. They had been advised to put him in a sanitarium a year before. They wanted to keep him at home. But that hysteria around marijuana persists to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Who benefits from prohibition?

JOHANN HARI: There’s a great story that tells us exactly who benefits. Right at the birth of the drug war a hundred years ago, when they’re banning drugs, they deliberately leave—senator deliberately leave a loophole in the law which says, "This doesn’t apply to addicts. Addicts can go to their doctor, and they can get whatever drugs they’re addicted to," right? It’s a very specifically designed loophole. And it’s shot down, state by state, by Harry Anslinger. And one of the last states to hold out is California, because it was hugely popular there. The mayor of Los Angeles goes and stands in front of the doctors’ clinics and says, "You will not shut this down. You know, this works for us." And then it was shut down.

I tell the story in the book of why it was shut down, which blew my mind. The local Chinese drug gangs were furious that in Nevada the addicts had to go and buy drugs from drug dealers, but in California they could go to doctors like Henry Smith Williams. So the local Chinese drug gangs bribed the narcotics agents to introduce the war on drugs, to enforce the drug war, because it meant that suddenly all these people have to come to them and buy on the illegal market. So right from the start, criminals are not only the only people who benefit from the war on drugs, they literally paid for it to be introduced.

And it was really striking to me, at the other end of the drug war, when I was interviewing people who led the Colorado campaign to legalize, you know, they would go on the radio and say, "Look, we should legalize drugs. It will bankrupt the cartels." And some of the radio hosts would say to them, "You can’t say that on the radio. We’re scared of the cartels. They’ll threaten us if you talk about legalization." So both at the birth of the drug war and at the end of the drug war, it works for criminal gangs. They are the only people who have ever won from this war.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by, Johann?

JOHANN HARI: Oh, god. I think there was one story that really—I went to Arizona, as we mentioned, and I interviewed this amazing woman called Donna Leone Hamm, who works on prisoners’ rights. And I asked her one of my stock questions, which is: Tell me about something that shocked you. She’s going down this list of stuff, and in the middle, she said, "There was the time they put that woman in a cage and cooked her. That was quite bad." And then she carried on. And I said—I did the facial expression you just did. I said, "Can we go back a second?"

There was a woman called Marcia Powell, about whom nothing—very little was known when I started researching the book. She was a meth addict, and she had spent many—in her forties, and she had spent many years in and out of prison, because—either for having meth or for prostituting herself to get meth. And one day in 2009, she wakes up in Perryville Prison in Arizona, and she says she’s suicidal. And the doctor doesn’t believe her. And to shut her up, they take her, and they put her in this outdoor holding pen, which is literally an exposed cage in the desert. And they left her there. And she cried, and she begged for water, and she messed herself. In the end, she collapsed. By the time they called an ambulance, she had been cooked.

No one was ever criminally punished for what happened to Marcia Powell, because in our culture addicts’ lives don’t matter. You know, the guy who ran that prison, Chuck Ryan, he’s the guy who was in charge of Abu Ghraib at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq for the Bush administration.

And I then went and tracked down, you know, who Marcia Powell—who she was. And I went and found the father of her children. And it was this heartbreaking story, just like Billie Holiday. You know, she was thrown out of home when she was 13. She had lived on the beach. She was a child prostitute. She was stunning her grief. She was in terrible pain. She actually had a period of her life, quite a long period, where she had got clean, and she went back to Arizona to get her kids back, because they had been taken into state care. And she was busted for an old marijuana charge, and her whole life fell apart again.

And you just think, you know—her former partner, Rich Hussman, said to me in Missouri, he said—yeah, I’m paraphrasing, but he said, "You know, she just needed some help." And I just thought—it really stayed with me. And when I went to Portugal and I saw these addicts with their—and Switzerland, where they prescribe heroin and they really treat addicts compassionately, I would see these people’s lives turned around, and I would think of Marcia Powell, and I would think of Billie Holiday, and I would think of Bud Osborn, I would think of my own relatives. And I would just think, "God, this doesn’t—none of that had to happen," you know?

There’s a much better way, that saves money, that works well, that actually helps people to turn their lives around. And, in a way, that’s kind of an optimism-giving thing, because it’s—I don’t think it’s a depressing book. I actually leave this feeling really optimistic. There are some things you look at, and you think, "Oh, god, this is just an irreconcilable human tragedy." There’s a solution to this. You know, of course there will still always be tragedies in any situation, but there’s a proven policy that massively reduces those tragedies. And what an amazing thing to know. What an amazing opportunity to be in a position where we can change this.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been listening to Johann Hari. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. His book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

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