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

StoryFebruary 04, 2015
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As President Obama seeks $27.6 billion for federal drug control programs in his new budget, we talk to 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.” His findings may surprise you — from the U.S. government’s persecution of Billie Holiday, to Vancouver’s success in addressing its heroin epidemic, to Portugal’s experiment with full decriminalization of all drugs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One part of President Obama’s new budget that has received little attention is the war on drugs. The White House is seeking $27.6 billion for federal drug control programs, nearly $1 billion more than last year. More than half the money will be allocated for drug law enforcement by the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and the drug czar’s office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have also been requested to be spent fighting the war on drugs in Colombia, Mexico and Central America. The budget also includes a line item that would clear the path for allowing legal sales of marijuana in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we spend the rest of the hour looking at the U.S. drug war with British journalist Johann Hari, author of the new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War of Drugs. The book begins a century ago with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the law that launched the modern-day drug war not only in the United States but around the world. The book also details the latest science behind addiction. Johann Hari recently wrote a widely read piece for Huffington Post headlined “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.”

Johann, welcome to Democracy Now! What is it then?

JOHANN HARI: Well, it’s fascinating. If you had said to me four years ago, when I started on the really long journey through nine countries to write this book, “What causes, say, heroin addiction?” I would have looked at you like you were a little bit simple-minded, and I would have said, “Well, heroin causes heroin addiction.” We’ve been told a story for a hundred years that is so deep in our culture that we just take it for granted. We basically think if you, me and—I guess there’s about 20 people in this office—if we all took heroin for 20 days, by day 21, because there are chemical hooks in heroin, our bodies would physically need the heroin, and we would be heroin addicts. That’s what we think heroin addiction is.

The first thing that—I had a really personal reason to want to look into this: We had a lot of addiction in my family. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. And one of the first things, when I was looking at what really causes addiction, that alerted me that that story may—there’s something wrong with that story, someone just explained to me, if one of us steps out here today and we get hit by a car, right, God forbid, and we break our hip, we’ll be taken to hospital. There’s a very good chance we’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much better heroin than you’ll score on the streets, because it’s 100 percent pure as opposed to, you know, massively contaminated. You’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. That is happening in every hospital in the United States. All over the developed world, people are being given lots of heroin for long periods of time. You will have noticed something odd about that: Your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip operation. If what we thought about addiction was right, those people should be leaving hospital as addicts. In fact, they’re not.

When I learned that, I didn’t really know what to do with it, until I went and met an incredible man called Bruce Alexander, who’s a professor in Vancouver. He explained to me the old theory of addiction comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They were actually featured in a famous anti-drugs ad from the '80s in America. Very simple experiment your viewers can do at home if they're feeling a little bit sadistic: You get a rat, and you put it in a cage, and it’s got two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself. And so, it was concluded, there you go: That’s addiction.

But in the '70s, Bruce comes along and says, “Well, hang on a minute. We're putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except drink the drugged water. Let’s do this differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park. Rat Park is like heaven for rats. They’ve got loads of cheese—actually, I don’t think it’s cheese; it’s some very nice food that rats like—loads of colored balls, loads of friends. They can have loads of sex. Anything a rat can want, it’s got in Rat Park. And they’ve got both the water bottles: They’ve got the normal water and the drugged water. But here’s the fascinating thing. They obviously try both the water bottles; they don’t know what’s in them. They don’t like the drugged water. The rats in Rat Park use very little of it. They never overdose. And they never use in a way that looks like addiction or compulsion, which is fascinating. There’s a really interesting human example—there’s loads of human examples, but I can give you a specific one in a minute.

But what Bruce says is this shows that both the right-wing theory of addiction and the left-wing theories are wrong. The right-wing theory is, you know, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard, you know, that you indulge yourself—it’s a moral flaw. The left-wing theory is your brain gets hijacked, you get taken over. What Bruce says is it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain, it’s your cage. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment.

Really—and there’s massive implications of that, but there’s a really interesting human example that was actually going on at the same time as the Rat Park experiment. It’s called the Vietnam War. Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot. And if you look at the news reports from the time, there’s a real panic, because they believed the old theory of addiction. They believed that if you—these troops were going to come home, and you were going to suddenly have enormous numbers of addicts on the streets of the United States. What happened? All the evidence is the vast majority come home and just stop, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be and you could be killed at any moment, and you go back to your nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family and a purpose in life, it’s the equivalent of being taken from the first cage to the second cage. You go back to your connections.

What this show us is, I think there’s huge implications for the war on drugs. And obviously, the war on drugs is built on the idea that chemicals cause addiction, and we need to physically eradicate the chemicals from the United States. Now, I don’t think that’s physically possible. We can’t even keep them out of prisons, and we’ve got a walled perimeter. But let’s grant the philosophical premise behind that, right? If in fact the chemicals are not the primary driver of the addiction, if in fact huge numbers, in fact the vast majority, of people who use those chemicals don’t become addicted, if in fact the driver is isolation, pain and distress, then a policy that’s based on inflicting more isolation, pain and distress on addicts is obviously a bad idea. That’s what I saw in Arizona. I went out with a female chain gang that are forced to wear T-shirts saying, “I was a drug addict,” and, you know, made to dig graves and collect trash. And, you know, the idea that imposing more suffering on addicts will make them better, if suffering is the cause, is crazy.

I actually think there’s real implications for the politics that Democracy Now! covers so well and that we believe in so much. We have created a society where huge numbers of our fellow citizens can’t bear to be present in their lives and have to medicate themselves to get through the day with these drugs. You know, there’s nothing—a hypercapitalist, hyperindividualist society makes people feel like the rats in that first cage, that they’re cut off, they’re cut off from the source. I mean, there’s nothing—as Bruce explains, there’s nothing in human evolution that prepares us for being as isolated as the—you know, as the ideal citizen of a hypercapitalist, hyperconsumerist country like yours and mine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, you delve into the origins of our modern drug war and come up with some surprising information, that initially it was actually targeting key figures, African-American figures, in the musical world. Could you talk about that?

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, not far from where we are now, in 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage in a hotel, and she sings the song “Strange Fruit,” which obviously your viewers will know is an anti-lynching song. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said to me, “You’ve got to understand how shocking this was, right?” Billie Holiday wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel; she had to go through the service elevator. To have an African-American woman standing up, at a time when most pop songs were like twee, you know, “P.S. I Love You,” that kind of thing, singing against lynching in front of a white audience was regarded as really shocking. And that night, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, she’s told by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “Stop singing this song.”

Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a man called Harry Anslinger, who I think is the most influential person who no one’s ever heard of. Harry Anslinger takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending, and he wants to find a new purpose for it. You know, he’s got this huge bureaucracy he wants to run. And he’s really driven by two passions: an intense hatred of African Americans—I mean, this is a guy who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists in the 1930s; he used the N-word in official police reports so often that his senator said he should have to resign—and a really strong hatred of addicts. And Billie Holiday, to him, was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. And so, he gives her this order.

She refuses. She basically says, “Screw you. I’m an American citizen. I’ll say what I want.” She had grown up in segregated Baltimore, and she had promised herself she would never bow her head to any white man. And that’s when Harry Anslinger begins the process of stalking her, and eventually, I think, playing a role in her death, as was explained to me by her friends and by all the archival research.

The first person he sends to stalk her is an agent called Jimmy Fletcher. Harry Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday—it would be kind of obvious. So Jimmy Fletcher follows her around for two years, and she was so amazing, he fell in love with her. And he felt ashamed his whole life for what he did. He busts her. She’s sent to prison. The trial—she said, “The trial was called The United States v. Billie Holiday, and that’s how it felt.” And when she gets out, exactly what happens to addicts all over the United States today happens—what’s happened to those women I met in Arizona: She can’t get a job. You needed a license to be able to perform anywhere where alcohol was sold, and they wouldn’t give her the license. So, you know, her friend Yolande Bavan said to me, “What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a person is to take away the thing they love.” She sinks back into addiction.

When she’s in her early forties, she collapses here in New York City, she’s taken to hospital, and she’s convinced the narcotics agents aren’t finished with her. And she was right. She says to one of her friends, “They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me.” She was right. In her hospital bed, she’s diagnosed with liver cancer. I spoke to the only surviving person who was still in that room—who had been in that room. She’s handcuffed to the bed. They take away her record player and her candies. They don’t let her friends in to see her. One of her friends manages to insist to the doctors they give her methadone, because she had gone into withdrawal. She starts to recover a little bit. Ten days later, they cut off the methadone. She dies.

Her friend Annie Ross—you know, there are lots of things that—I think there’s lots of things in that dynamic that tell us a lot about the drug war, that it’s founded in a race panic. At the same time that Harry Anslinger finds out that Billie Holiday is using—is a heroin user, he finds out that Judy Garland was a heroin user. He advises her to take slightly longer vacations and tells her she’s going to be fine. Spot the difference.

But the most amazing thing to me about the Billie Holiday story that really helped me to think about the addicts in my life is she never stopped singing that song. She always found somewhere to sing it. You know, she went wherever they would have her, and she sang her song about lynching, no matter how much they tried to intimidate her. And to me, that’s really inspiring, not just for resisting the racism of the drug war, but actually for realizing that addicts can be heroes. All over the world while we’re talking, people are listening to Billie Holiday, and they are feeling stronger. And that is an incredible achievement. And the people resisting the drug war who I met all over the world, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to, you know, a scientist who was feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see what would happen, to the only country that has ever decriminalized all drugs, there is heroism in resistance to this war all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Johann Hari, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. His book is called Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.


AMY GOODMAN: “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Johann Hari, British journalist, author of the new book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Johann, in your travels around the world to delve into this story, you found places that have chosen another way. Could you talk about, specifically, Portugal and the importance of what’s happened in Portugal in terms of drug addiction, and also Vancouver, where you’ve spent some time?

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, I was so inspired by what I saw in both those places. It was fascinating to go to the places that have abandoned the drug war model and tried the alternatives.

In Portugal in the year 2000, they had the biggest—one of the biggest drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of mind-blowing. And basically, every year they tried harder the American way—they cracked down harder—and every year the problem got worse. So one day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and they said, “Look, let’s just set up a panel of doctors to figure out what would genuinely solve this problem, and let’s agree, in advance, that we’ll do whatever they tell us to do.” So it just took it out of politics.

So, the panel goes away for a year and a half, led by an amazing man called João Goulão, and they come back, and they say, “Look, decriminalize everything, from cannabis to crack. But”—and this is the crucial thing—”transfer all the money we currently spend on arresting drug users, imprisoning drug users, trying drug users, all of that, into incredibly good drug treatment.” Now, partly, that’s rehab, psychological support, that kind of thing. But, actually, much more, it’s the stuff that learns the lesson of Rat Park. We could be drunk now. All three of us could be drinking vodka now, right? We’re not, because we’ve got a job we love, we’ve got something to do, we’ve got a purpose in life. The goal of the Portuguese decriminalization was to say every addict needs to be given a purpose in life. So one of the biggest things was just subsidize jobs. If you used to be a mechanic and your life fell apart, they go to a garage, and they say, “Employ this guy for a year, and we’ll pay half his wages.” It was all about getting addicts reconnected. It’s getting them out of the first cage, into the second cage, if you like.

And it’s been 15 years, nearly 15 years, and the results are in, and they’re kind of incredible. Injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. You know, every study shows addiction is significantly down. Overdose is massively down. And one of the most moving interviews I did was with a guy called João Figueira, who led the opposition to the decriminalization, was the top drug cop in Portugal. And he said—I’m paraphrasing; the exact words are in the book—but he said, “Everything I said would happen didn’t happen. And everything the other guys said would happen did.” And, you know, he talked about how he was ashamed that he had spent 20 years arresting drug users, and he hoped the whole world followed our example.

The other really amazing example—and I think it’s particularly relevant to Democracy Now! listeners and viewers—is the story of what happened in Vancouver. Again in the year 2000, there was a homeless street addict on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver called Bud Osborn. It was the area with the worst addiction in North America. And Bud Osborn was watching his friends die all around him. People would use behind dumpsters so the police wouldn’t see them. Obviously, the police can’t see, and no one else can. And Bud said, “I’ve got to do something. I can’t just watch all these people die.” But he also said, “I’m a homeless street addict. What can I do?” He had a very simple idea. He just said to all the other addicts, “Why don’t we start just patrolling the alleyways? Why don’t we just start—when we’re not using, we’ll have a rota. We’ll patrol, and we’ll monitor each other, and we’ll call an ambulance.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Bud Osborn—


AMY GOODMAN: —speaking in 2011 at a Health, Harm Reduction and the Law forum in Vancouver.

BUD OSBORN: a flame burst inside me
fueled by grief and rage
like a spontaneous fierce combustion
flashing up through my nervous system
and roared in my head like a psychic explosion

because of another
because of too many
because of an unnecessary
overdose death

two words repetitively in my head

No More! No More! No More!
of this heart-breaking family-shattering community-diminishing
of overdose deaths

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bud Osborn.

JOHANN HARI: I feel a bit emotional looking at that. What Bud achieved was incredible. So, overdose started to fall, because they’re doing these patrols. And then they started to get a bit energized, and the addicts started to think, “Oh, maybe we’re not the pieces of rubbish that people have been saying we are. Maybe we can do things differently.”

They started to learn that in Frankfurt, Germany, they had opened safe injecting rooms, where people could use legally and be monitored by doctors, and it had massively saved lives. So Bud and his friends, a big group of them, started to stalk the mayor of Vancouver everywhere he went, a guy called Philip Owen. He was a kind of right-wing businessman. Think Mitt Romney, right? A guy who said that addicts should be taken and put in an army base somewhere, right? For two years, they follow him, everywhere he went, with a coffin. And the coffin said, “Who will die next, Philip Owen, before you open a safe injecting room?” This goes on for years. They get a bit demoralized.

And one day, to his eternal credit, Philip Owen just says, “Who the hell are these people?” And he goes, and he meets loads of addicts, and he spends a load of time on the Downtown Eastside. And it opens his heart, and he says, “I had no idea it was like this.” And he holds a press conference, and they have the chief of police, and they have the coroner, and they have an addict. And he says, “I’m never going to talk about addiction again without having an addict here. We’re going to open this first safe injecting room in North America. We’re going to have the most compassionate drug policies in North America.” They open this injecting room. Philip Owen is deselected by his own right-wing party, because they’re so appalled. He’s replaced by a candidate who continues keeping the drug room open, from a more liberal party.

And, you know, it’s been 15 years now—10 years now, sorry, and the results are in. Overdose is down by 80 percent—80 percent. Average life expectancy in that neighborhood is up by 10 years. Those are figures you only get when a war ends. And I spoke to Philip Owen, and he said it was the proudest thing he ever did, and he would sacrifice his political career all over again.

And looking at Bud, I was thinking—you know, Bud died last year. He was only in his early sixties, but having been a homeless addict during a drug war takes a toll on you. When he died, they sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside where he had lived, and they had this amazing memorial service. And there were a huge number of people in that crowd who knew that they were alive because of what Bud had done. And I would say to anyone watching this, you know, it’s so easy to feel daunted by the big political challenges we’ve got. It’s so easy, especially with something as huge as the drug war. You are so much more powerful than you know. Bud was a homeless street addict, and he started a movement that has transformed Vancouver, transformed Canada, and saved thousands of people’s lives. If he can do it, we can do it. This war has been going for a hundred years. We can end it now if we choose to.

AMY GOODMAN: Why “Chasing the Scream”?

JOHANN HARI: Oh, it’s from the story at the beginning. This guy we were talking about, Harry Anslinger, the origin—who launches the modern drug war, this kind of genius—and I don’t say that with admiration—when he was 10 years old, he lived at a farmhouse next to a woman, a farmer’s wife, who was an addict. And one day he turns up, and she’s screaming. And the farmer says, “Go to the pharmacy and buy her some heroin,” because you could buy it legally then—opiates, it wouldn’t have been heroin. And he kind of rushes there. He comes back. She takes the opiates and calms down. But he always remembered those screams. They haunted him. And he was convinced that he was taking on this big war, and he could eradicate these drugs, and therefore he could end that screaming. The tragic irony is he created a lot of screams in his turn.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, could you talk about President Mujica of Uruguay?

JOHANN HARI: Oh, he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever interviewed. Mujica was the leader of the Tupamaro guerrilla movement. He was a dissident. He was kept at the bottom of a well for two years by the dictatorship. And he emerged to become the leader of his country. He lives in a shack. I went to the shack. I mean, it’s no exaggeration to say David Cameron and Barack Obama wouldn’t keep their shoes where Mujica lives. And he led his country to legalize marijuana, first country to legalize marijuana since the drug war begins in the '30s, because he had seen what happened. And I went there to see this in northern Mexico, where the cartels have—if a large part of the economy is illegal drugs, the armed criminal gangs have more money than the state. They can hijack the state and take it over. And he saw if that comes in his Uruguay, they're screwed. It’s a small country. They don’t have much military force. And really, the horror that I saw—I mean, I interviewed the only person to ever be at the heart of one of the Mexican drug cartels—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

JOHANN HARI: —and make it out to tell what it was like. And, you know, this is one of the most horrendous atrocities of the war on drugs, is what it does to the supply route countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Johann Hari, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is Chasing the Scream. It is just out. The subtitle: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

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