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Johann Hari & Naomi Klein: Does Capitalism Drive Drug Addiction?

Web ExclusiveMarch 11, 2015
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British journalist Johann Hari recently sat down with Naomi Klein to discuss his new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” They spoke at Ben McNally Books in Toronto on February 11. Watch our extended interview with Johann Hari on Democracy Now!: Part 1 || Part 2

NAOMI KLEIN: And it’s just my enormous honor and pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, Johann Hari, and try to amplify the incredibly important message that is in this book and the amazing writing and storytelling that is inside of its pages. It is truly remarkable.

So here’s what’s going to happen. Johann is going to speak for about 10 minutes and just kind of lay out the core thesis of Chasing the Scream, and that is going to raise many more questions. And then we’re going to have a conversation and draw out some of the themes, some of the stories, because while the book does have this very powerful argument at its center, what’s wonderful about the book is that it is—it’s storytelling at its best. You know, it isn’t a polemic. It is a book of incredible human stories based on remarkable reporting that supports, from which the thesis comes from. And, you know, that’s one of the really—you know, one of the marks of a great thinker, is somebody who allows themselves to be changed by their research. And I’ve known Johann for many years, and I know that the thesis at the heart of this book is not one he went into it with; it’s one that came out of the research and reporting. I love Johann, and I think of him as this incredible, avenging angel for justice. And thinking about tonight, I was really reminded that what sets Johann apart from so many other journalists is really just the depth of his compassion, which I think you will get a sense of tonight, and also the genuineness of his outrage at abuses of power. So, that’s what brings me here tonight.

Johann has written for many, many of the world’s leading publications—The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and on and on. Before he embarked on this all-consuming project, he was a regular columnist with The Independent in the U.K. It was a must-read column. It might interest you to know that unlike many British journalists, he does not come from the aristocracy. His mother is from the Scottish tenements, his father from the Swiss mountains. He did study at Cambridge, much like all of British aristocracy.

JOHANN HARI: [inaudible]

NAOMI KLEIN: And he was named National Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International twice. He was named Environmental Commentator of the Year by the Editorial Intelligence Awards and Gay Journalist of the Year at the Stonewall Awards. And he is already working on his next book, which you’re all going to be super-interested in. But we’re not talking about that tonight, because he’s just come out with this incredible book, which he’s going to tell us a bit about.

JOHANN HARI: Right, right. I’m really glad to be here for lots of reasons. One is because it’s a real relief to be in a place where people can understand my accent. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in the U.S. And after all my media things, Naomi would always ring me up and go, “That was really good, but they can’t understand what you’re saying. You need to speak more slowly.” And it reminded me of when I was doing some research for the book. I went to Tyler County in Texas to interview this guy who’s in prison there. He was a hit man for the Zetas. He’s basically the only person who’s ever been at the heart of one of the Mexican—worst Mexican cartels and lived to tell the story. And I went to this prison, and just before I went there, I went to this thing called Jack in the Box. Do any of you know what that is? It’s a chain. It’s responsible for at least one of my chins. And I go in, and I said to the woman whatever I said, like, “Hi. Could I have a quarter pounder with cheese?” And she looked at me, and she said, “What?” And I said, “Can I have a quarter pounder with cheese?” And she said, “Do you speak English?” And I said, “Madam, my people invented it.” And she paused, and she said, “What?”

So, I wanted to just say—I shouldn’t really say this, but—I shouldn’t say this; my published will tell me off. But if you’re only going to buy one book today, and you’ve not yet bought This Changes Everything, buy Naomi’s book before mine. I’d like to think my book is really good, but hers is mind-blowingly brilliant. There’s not a day that’s passed since I’ve read it that I’ve not thought about it, and it’s completely changed how I argue with people. And I essentially have had arguments where I’ve basically bashed people over the head with This Changes Everything. You know, I think we actually worked this into the blurb. I think I said at the time that, when I first read it, you know, once a decade Naomi writes a book that just changes how we talk about that decade—No Logo, The Shock Doctrine—and This Changes Everything is one of those books, and it’s just incredible. And I think there’s some interesting kind of thematic—I know we’re going to get to—some kind of thematic links between what we said.

What I want to do is talk about two—just two things today, just quickly, the two heroic Canadians. Two of the heroes of my book are Canadian. I’m not saying this just to suck up to you. When you read the book, you will in fact see there that two of the heroes are Canadian.

It’s now a hundred years since drugs were first banned. And four years ago, nearly four years ago, when I started writing the book, I realized we were coming up to the centenary, and I wanted to think about this for quite a personal reason. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to, and there was a lot of addiction in my family. And I kind of realized that there were loads of really basic questions that I just didn’t know the answer to about this subject. Why did we start kind of going to war against drug users and addicts in the first place? Why do we continue, even though a lot of people think it doesn’t work? What really causes drug use and drug addiction? And what are the alternatives? And so, I didn’t want to do that. I thought part of the problem with this whole debate is we talk about it in such an abstract way, you know? Like we talk like we’re at a philosophy seminar, and we talk about how the world should be. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to talk about real people whose lives were changed one way or another.

So I ended up going on this kind of big journey across nine different countries and meeting a really fascinating range of people, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to a scientist who spends a lot of time feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see if they like them—they do, but only in very specific circumstances—and to the only country that’s ever decriminalized all drugs, from cannabis to crack, with really striking results. And the book is really the story of how I discovered that almost everything we think we know about this subject is wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Addiction is not what we think it is. The drug war is certainly not what we’ve been told it is. And the alternatives aren’t what we think they are.

And there were two people here in Canada who really helped me to think about this. One is guy called Bruce Alexander. He’s someone you will know the work of. If you had said to me four years ago, say, “What causes heroin addiction?” right, I would have—I would have looked at you like you were a little bit simpleminded. I would have said, “Well, heroin causes heroin addiction, right?” There’s a story we’ve been told about addiction, how it works, for a hundred years now, that’s so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it seems like our common sense, right? We think if the first 20 people on the rows here, if we all used heroin together for, say, 20 days, there are chemical hooks in heroin that our body would start to physically need, right? So, on day 21, we would need that heroin. We would physically crave it. And that’s what addiction is; that’s how we think it works.

And the first kind of chink in my doubt about that was explained to me by another great Canadian, Gabor Maté in Vancouver, who some of you will know the work of, amazing man. And he pointed out to me, if any of us step out of here today and we’re hit by a bus, right, God forbid, and we break our hip, we’ll be taken to hospital. It’s very likely 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 medically pure, right? It’s really potent heroin. You’ll be given it for quite a long period of time. Every hospital in the developed world, that’s happening, right? If what we think about addiction is right, what should—I mean, those people should leave as addicts. That never happens, virtually never happens. You will have noticed your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip replacement operation, right?

I didn’t really know what to do with it. When Gabor first explained that to me, I didn’t really know how to process that, until I met Bruce Alexander. Bruce is a professor in Vancouver, and Bruce explained something to me. The idea of addiction we have, the one that we all implicitly believe—I certainly did—comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They’re really simple experiments. You can do them yourself at home if you’re feeling a little bit sadistic. Get a rat and put it in a cage and give it 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 very quickly, right, within a couple of weeks. So there you go. It’s our theory of addiction.

Bruce comes along in the '70s and said, “Well, hang on a minute. We're putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do. Let’s try this a little bit differently.” So Bruce built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food. It’s got sex. It’s got loads of other rats to be friends with. It’s got loads of colored balls. Everything your rat could want. And they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got the drugged water and the normal water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use any of it. None of them ever overdose. None of them ever use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction. There’s a really interesting human example I’ll tell you about in a minute, but what Bruce says is that shows that both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. So the right-wing theory is it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is it takes you over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.

There was a really interesting human experiment going on at the same time as Rat Park, which kind of demonstrates this really interestingly. It was called the Vietnam War, right? Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot, right? And if you look at the reports from the time, they were really worried. They thought—because they believed the old theory of addiction. They were like, “My god, these guys are all going to come home, and we’re going to have loads of heroin addicts on the streets of the United States.” What happened? They came home, and virtually all of them just stopped, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be, you can die at any moment, and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, you can bear to be present in your life. We could all be drunk now. Forget the drug laws. We could all be drunk now, right? None of you look very drunk. I’m guessing you’re not, right? That’s because we’ve got something we want to do. We’ve got things we want to be present for in our lives.

So, I think this has—Bruce taught us about how this has huge implications, obviously, for the drug war. The drug war is based on the idea that the chemicals cause the addiction, and we need to physically eradicate these chemicals from the face of the Earth. If in fact it’s not the chemicals, if in fact it’s isolation and pain that cause the addiction, then it suddenly throws into sharp contrast the idea that we need to impose more isolation and pain on addicts in order to make them stop, which is what we currently do.

But it actually has much deeper implications that I think really relate to what Naomi writes about in This Changes Everything, and indeed before. We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged, right? We’ve created a hyperconsumerist, hyperindividualist, isolated world that is, for a lot of people, much more like that first cage than it is like the bonded, connected cages that we need. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection. And our whole society, the engine of our society, is geared towards making us connect with things. If you are not a good consumer capitalist citizen, if you’re spending your time bonding with the people around you and not buying stuff—in fact, we are trained from a very young age to focus our hopes and our dreams and our ambitions on things we can buy and consume. And drug addiction is really a subset of that.

I think that with one of the heroes from Canada, I think I’ll leave it to talk to with Naomi. But thank you. Hooray. Thanks.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, I do want to start by picking up on this Canada theme. And, you know, it is interesting that two of these really key thinkers—and they are internationally renowned and, in some cases, you know, more understood outside of Canada than inside Canada, in the case of Bruce Alexander. You know, Gabor increasingly has an international audience, as he deserves to, and a strong Canadian audience. But, you know, it’s not just that they’re from Canada. They’re from Vancouver, right? And this is a city with, you know, a massive drug problem, obviously. And I only read Bruce’s book when you recommended it to me while I—you know, years ago. But it’s interesting, because Bruce talks about Vancouver specifically being this city of people who have been severed from place, right? A very, very—you know, a relatively new city even in the context of a settler country like Canada. And he also draws connections between the fact that many of the people on the Downtown Eastside are First Nations and have been, you know, violently severed from their land and culture. So this idea of addiction being so closely correlated to the severing of meaningful connections that protect us from needing to go for that second bottle, right, I just found so interesting. And—yeah?

JOHANN HARI: Actually, it’s super fascinating, as well, because Bruce really shows also the kind of racism of—you know this theory that like native peoples just can’t metabolize drugs? Which is a really widely believed thing, right? So, it’s not—Bruce says it could be that we’ve subjected them to a genocide, horrifically traumatized them for hundreds of years. That could be the cause, or it could be that they can’t metabolize drugs. Which one seems most likely to you, you know? And so, it’s fascinating.

But I also the Downtown Eastside—you’re totally right. The Downtown Eastside is like a laboratory of—I mean, you guys know that this is the highest concentration of addicts in North America. But also the Downtown Eastside is showing the way out of this in the most moving way.

NAOMI KLEIN: Right. Talk about that.

JOHANN HARI: Yeah. One of the people—one of the most amazing and inspiring people I’ve ever met is the subject of a chapter in the book, this man called Bud Osborn. In the year 2000, Bud Osborn was a homeless street addict on the Downtown Eastside, and he was watching his friends die all around him. People would use behind dumpsters so the cops couldn’t see them. But obviously, if the cops can’t see you when you start to OD, no one can see you when you die. And Bud said to himself, you know, “I’ve got to do something about this.” But he also thought, “Well, I’m a homeless junkie. What can I do?” And he had a really simple idea at first. He got together a group of the addicts, and he said, “Why don’t we—not anyone else, just us, the addicts—why don’t we just start patrolling the alleyways? We’ll have like a timetable. We’ll patrol the alleyways. And when we spot someone ODing, we’ll just call an ambulance.” Right? So they started doing that. And within a few months, the overdose rate started to really significantly fall, which was great in itself, but it also meant that the addicts started to think, “Ah, maybe we’re not like the pieces of [expletive] that everyone says we are. Maybe we can do something.”

So they started to go to public meetings, like—maybe like this, though not in lovely bookstores—about the menace of the addicts, right? And they’d sit at the back. And after a little while, they’d put up their hand, and they’d go, “I think you’re talking about us. Is there anything we could do differently?” And sometimes people would be furious, and sometimes people would say, you know, “You leave your needles lying around.” And Bud said, “That’s fine. We’ll just start collecting the needles at the end of the, you know, parade, when we’re checking people.” And they did start doing it. But that’s when Bud found out that in Frankfurt they had safe injecting rooms, where addicts can go and use and be monitored by doctors. And the overdose rate had, I think, virtually ended in Frankfurt. And Bud said, “Right, we’ve got to have this in—we’ve got to have this in Vancouver. Simple.” Hadn’t been anything like it in North America ever, since the drug war began.

And there was a mayor of Vancouver, who some of you all know about, Philip Owen, who was a kind of right-wing businessman. Picture Mitt Romney, from a very privileged family. He had said drug addicts should be dealt with by being taken to the local military base, right? That was—and detained there. And everywhere Philip Owen went for two years, they stalked him, and they carried a coffin, and the coffin said something like “Who will die next, Philip Owen, before you open a safe injecting room?” And they started to get a bit disheartened because it goes on for years and nothing changes. And one day, to his eternal credit, Philip Owen, who I interviewed, said, “Who the [expletive] are these people?” And he goes to the Downtown Eastside, incognito, and he just met loads of addicts. And he was totally blown away. And he didn’t know anything about it. And he then went to meet one of our nemeses, who, unfortunately, was on this one sole issue quite good, Milton Friedman, the demonic Nobel Prize-winning economist, who nonetheless was fantastic on this one issue. I’m so sorry. It pains me to say this in front of Naomi. And he went and met Milton Friedman, and Milton Friedman explained the drug war to him.

And Philip Owen came back, and he held a press conference, where he basically said—had a representative of the addicts with him, and he said, “I’m never going to have a meeting without any—about addiction where we don’t have addicts there. We’re going to open the first safe injecting room in North America. We’re going to have the most compassionate drug policies in North America, and things are going to change. You wait and see.” Philip Owen’s party was so appalled, they deselected him. But he was replaced by a candidate who kept the room open. And it’s 10 years on, and the results are in. Injecting drug—sorry. Deaths from overdose are down by 80 percent on the Downtown Eastside, eight-zero. And average life expectancy is up by 10 years. You only get figures like that when a war ends, which is what this is.

And Bud died last year. He was only in his—he was only in his early sixties, but he—well, he had been a homeless addict during the drug war, so it takes a toll on you. And when he died, they sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside where he had lived as a homeless person, and there was this amazing memorial service. And there were huge numbers of people who knew they were alive because of what he had started. And I would just say to anyone, you know, like, particularly the work we do, it’s very easy to get disheartened, especially when taking on something massive like the drug war or global warming. You are so much more powerful than you know. Bud was a homeless street addict, and he started something that has saved thousands of people’s lives in Vancouver. And that is a real model for what we can achieve. And, you know, I love that thing—Naomi wrote this fantastic thing about, partly, the imbecilic reaction to her book on the part of American liberals, some of them, was like, “Well, you have faith in social movements. Good luck with that.” You know. And I thought, how—how bizarre that they—you know, social movements are the only thing that ever change anything. And that, to me, is one of the most powerful examples of a social movement.

NAOMI KLEIN: Something else that I think really supports this idea, that this—like, at its heart, this is about severed connections, is the success of programs like AA that are about confronting the problem in community, right? I mean, the importance of meetings, you know, and one of the things that is really striking about that is, like, the thing about addiction meetings, like whether it’s Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous, right, like we don’t live in a culture that really does meetings very well. Right? Like you kind of have to be an addict to go to a meeting. We don’t have political meetings anymore. We used to have like trade union meetings, and people would go to like city hall meetings. And now—I mean, I would say this about my work, where I say, like, honestly, I think people are just using me as an excuse to get in a room together and have a conversation, because we don’t know how to do it without an excuse, right? It has to be someone’s written a book or somebody’s made a film, but actually just coming face to face with fellow human beings and talking, we don’t know how to do—unless you’re an addict. And there’s something about that that just works, right?

JOHANN HARI: That’s so fascinating. I never thought of it that way. It’s incredibly—I know there will be people here who have gone to NA and AA meetings or Al-Anon meetings. And it’s just incredibly moving seeing people who would otherwise never talk to each other just sit with each other. The only other place it ever happens is juries, basically. They’re the two places where like ordinary, particularly British, people, where we basically don’t talk to each other in any circumstances, unless we’re extremely drunk. So to have sober British people talking about their emotions is—literally happens nowhere else. And that’s super interesting. I think you’re right. And I think it’s interesting about when you think about NA and AA. And this is a difficult thing to say. But the reason why that model works is because it provides a place where people can connect.


JOHANN HARI: The specific theology that was created, you know, when it was, by admirable people, I think could be reformed. We could have a conversation about reforming some of that theology. It’s not about taking it away from anyone who it works for. You know, for something as complex as human addiction, we need a really broad menu of things. And I’m in favor of adding things to the menu, not taking anything away. But I also thought [inaudible] the relationship between something that Bruce talks about and what you talk about, Naomi, that Bruce talks about how we need to think much—in addiction, we talk all the time about individual recovery. And that has real value, and, you know, he’s in favor of it, I’m in favor it. But he says we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something’s gone wrong with us not just as individuals, but as a group. And I really think that’s fascinating how that relates to the people’s shock and the stuff that you saw in Red Hook and the places—in so many other places. Do you see a relationship between those things?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I mean, I think our whole—we live in a culture that, you know, systematically severs connections. And, you know, it’s from one another and from our natural surroundings. And, I mean, I think that this is like the trap of actually what makes it so hard to deal with climate change, is that fossil fuels are incredibly good at—they’re like connection-severing machines, right? Like they allow you to live in this—you know, the whole pitch for fossil fuels in the first place was like this will allow you to control your environment and no longer have to think about where you live and think about—and so, it helps us be so isolated. That’s their appeal, in a way, and it’s also their danger. And it’s also what makes it so hard to get off them, is that this is something that we can only deal with in community.

I mean, and yeah, I see it in the responses. You know, whenever I talk about climate change, like the first question is: What can I do? And it’s like, well, honestly, you can’t do anything. You cannot do this by yourself. Like this is not going to happen with you going to the store, you know, or writing a letter. You will only do this in large communities of other people. And the idea that we could do this on our own, like we could confront these huge crises on our own, is a product of the triumph of capitalism, you know? And yeah, and I think that in the examples—the only successful examples of, yeah, what I call a people’s shock, like moments when people come together in crisis, are these moments when you have these surprisingly powerful, resilient communities that come forward nonetheless.

But I want to change the—because we don’t have—


NAOMI KLEIN: —endless time. You know, the book is this wonderful hybrid of this really interesting research and this very contemporary reporting, but it also has a lot of history in it. And the first part of the book is, you know, this history of the drug war that has received very, very little attention. And you tell this story—I mean, in some ways, I think it does support these libertarian ideas because it is this cautionary tale about big government. Can you talk about this?

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Like Rand Paul’s office, you know, the Republican guy who might be the Republican nominee, bizarrely, got in touch with me. He was like, “Oh, we really liked your book.” And I was like—on the one hand, I’m kind of happy, because, you know, you want this broader coalition, and he’s genuinely good on this; on the other hand, you think, “Hmm, did not expect in my life to be praised by a potential Republican presidential nominee.”

But, no, it’s really fascinating. The story I open the book with is the story of the stalking and killing of Billie Holiday. In 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York, and she sang the song “Strange Fruit,” which, as you know, is a song against lynching. Her goddaughter, Lorraine Feather, said to me, “You’ve got to understand how shocking it was to have an African-American woman singing a song against”—she wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of that hotel. She had to go through the service elevator. So to stand up in front of a white audience and do that was pretty—a time when almost all popular songs were like “P.S. I Love You,” right? And that night she was told, according to her biographer, Julia Blackburn, by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, “Stop singing this song.” Right? The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was run by a crazy racist called Harry Anslinger, a man who was regarded as a crazy racist by the crazy racists at the time. And, like, you had to be really crazy then. And Billie Holiday had grown up in segregated Baltimore when she wasn’t allowed into a lot of store because she was African-American. And she promised herself when she was a little girl, she was never going to bow her head to any white person. And she basically said, “Screw you, I’m going to sing my song.”

And that’s when Anslinger resolved to destroy. [She] was like a symbol of everything [he] hated—you know, African-American woman standing up and—yeah. So he sends this agent to stalk her. The first guy he sends to stalk her fell in love with her, because she was so amazing. But she’s sent to prison, and when she gets out, she can’t perform, because you needed a license to perform. She couldn’t perform in most places. You need a license to perform where alcohol was sold. Her friend, Yolande Bavan, said to me, like, “What’s the cruelest thing you can do to a person? It’s to take away the thing they love.” And that’s what we do to addicts the whole time. I went out in Arizona with this chain gang of women who were forced to wear T-shirts saying, “I was a drug addict,” and dig graves. They’re never going to work again, right? We give addicts criminal records, we cut them off.

And Billie Holiday sinks back into addiction. She collapses when she’s in her early forties. She’s taken to hospital in New York, and she says to one of her friends that the agents aren’t—Anslinger’s men aren’t finished with her. She says, “They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me.” They handcuff her to the bed. I interviewed—she was diagnosed with liver cancer. They knew that. I interviewed the last surviving guy who was in that room. They handcuffed her to the bed. They didn’t let any of her friends in to see her. They took away her record player and her candies. One of her friends manages—she went into withdrawal. One of her friends managed to get her prescribed methadone, and she started to recover. And 10 days later, they cut off the methadone, and she died.

And I think that tells you a lot about the drug war, but it also really helped me to think about the addicts in my life, because the amazing thing is, she always found somewhere to sing that song. No matter what they did to her, she never gave in. She kept the promise she made herself as a little girl. She didn’t bow her head to anyone. And to know that addicts can be heroes, to change the story—it’s a bit like Bud, the guy in Vancouver—to change the story, to look at the addicts in your life and realize you could be a hero, I think, is really kind of powerful.

NAOMI KLEIN: And I think that the book has—you know, it’s already quite a phenomenon. And, you know, it’s interesting because it’s not like you have this huge publicity campaign behind you. And, to me, it really speaks to the fact that truths, if they’re powerful enough, can still cut through this incredibly noisy culture. Like Johann wrote this piece based on the book for Huffington Post that was how many—it was shared how many times?

JOHANN HARI: I’ve deliberately not looked, because if I follow it, I’ll go slightly crazy. I’m deliberately not looking at any numbers or figures related to my book. But it was a lot.

NAOMI KLEIN: It was a lot. And it was about this issue that it is ultimately about connection and challenging this idea. Like if that’s true, then the worst thing you can do for someone you love who is struggling with addiction is to practice tough love, you know? And I think it was that message that caused that to be forwarded millions of times.

JOHANN HARI: If I could remove one phrase from the English language, it would be “tough love.” Tough love is not love. Tough love is treating people like [expletive], right? Like, let’s just love people.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, I mean, that you’re doing the exact wrong thing. And I think that just hearing that said resonated so powerfully with people’s lived experience, that they were like, “Yes,” you know? And that’s something that no amount of marketing can replicate. But what I was referring to with the big government reference was the fact that this was a government agency, founded to ban alcohol, that was put out of business when prohibition ended, and then had to perpetuate itself, right?

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, he takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending. And he’s this very efficient government bureaucrat, and he wants a purpose. And he had previously said that marijuana was totally harmless. Right? He didn’t have a problem with it. And then he suddenly announces that marijuana is worse than heroin. And he latches onto this absurd case. There was a boy called Victor Licata in Florida who hacked his family to death with an ax. And Harry Anslinger announced that this is what will happen if you use marijuana. And with the kind of Fox News of its day, Hearst Newspapers, they make this huge scandal, and it’s why marijuana was banned. Years later, someone goes back and checks the psychiatric files of this boy. There’s not even evidence he used marijuana. You will have noticed—I’m sure there’s people in this room who have used marijuana and not hacked their family to death with an ax. You will have noticed it’s not the norm. But yeah, we live with these hysterias.

Harry Anslinger was a kind of genius at conducting the fears and anxieties of his time through drugs. And I kind of think that about—you know, this is a slightly pretentious thought; I don’t think I said it in the book. But the history of the war on drugs, if you think about it in the long arc of human history, it belongs in the story of symbolic wars, where we go to war against—we try to embody one of our fears in an object and go to war against it, like the Crusades or the witchcraft crazes. I think it’s like that. You can see, when we look back on them, it’s like, “What? They went looking for the Holy Grail? What?” You know, like—but you realize that they were trying to deal with something inside themselves by making it external and trying to hunt it down or destroy it. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve tried to deal with this anxiety.

And I think a lot of it, partly it’s race, but partly it’s—why does the drug war start early in the—you know, when it does in 1914? It’s partly because you have a—it’s the beginning of the kind of consumer capitalism that we’re talking about, where people are much more disconnected. So it’s partly a bit like, you know, these homophobic preachers who were caught in bed with rent boys, and you realize they’ve been raging against their own gay impulses. I think a lot of the anger about addiction and addicts is fear and anxiety about our own addictive impulses rising within us, which are really there. I mean, is there anyone in this room who doesn’t feel addicted to their smartphone, for example? I doubt it. If there is, come and talk to me afterwards and tell me your methods. You know, there’s a real fear, because we’re so disconnected. And I think it’s revealing, the smartphone thing. It’s a kind of parody of connection, as well, isn’t it?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, yeah. Oh, it’s so interesting, because we are—we all talk about our relationship with technology of various forms—the smartphones or just social media at home, you know—as an addiction that we can’t master. And what is it that we’re looking for in our phones and on Facebook and Twitter? It’s some ephemeral shadow of community and connection.

JOHANN HARI: One of the missions of my life, I should tell you all, is to persuade Naomi to stop looking at her atmentions, right? Like, for years now—

NAOMI KLEIN: Johann—actually, I’m not sure I believe him, but he claims that he does not go on Twitter.

JOHANN HARI: I genuinely don’t. And I tweet, but I never look at what—I broadcast, but I don’t receive. Right? And I can’t tell you how much better I feel when I do that. One day I will persuade Naomi not to do it.

NAOMI KLEIN: And, I mean, do you—this is something that Gabor Maté and Bruce Alexander both talk about, is the fact that we have a culture of addiction. And it’s something that people talk about with fossil fuels, which I’m not sure—you know, people often talk about how we’re addicted to fossil fuels. And I think it’s—I don’t think it’s the fossil fuel that we’re addicted to, but there’s something about what it is delivering that is sort of in the cycle of addiction. I mean, does that work for you, this sort of we’re all addicted? Like Gabor talks about being addicted to his CD—you know, compulsive CD buying.

JOHANN HARI: I think Gabor—yeah, I mean, I think we’re all on a continuum, and we all have some behaviors where the rational part of us doesn’t want to do it, but the irrational part of us does it anyway. I mean, yeah. I mean, cake. You only need to say the word “cake,” and everyone knows exactly what I mean. But so, yeah—and, of course, it’s a continuum where you’ve got cake at one end and, you know, extreme—and it doesn’t have to be—obviously, you’d think of crack or meth, but actually gambling addiction, or you can have all of the catastrophic addiction and no chemicals. No one thinks you snort a roulette wheel, you know.

But I’d be interested, actually, if you think, though—do you think economic—partly—so you’ve got this kind of atomized society, and I wonder if there’s a relationship between this atomized, more addiction-prone society and the panic at the idea of economic growth not happening. I agree with you about fossil fuels, but do you think the part of the kind of—because one of the most controversial parts of Naomi’s book is—I’m baffled by why anyone finds this controversial, but Naomi says at one point we may have to return to the living standards of the 1970s, which Elizabeth Kolbert thought was like saying we have to go live in caves. And there were bad things about the 1970s—don’t get me wrong—but they weren’t living in caves. And I’m [inaudible] about—there’s something about the idea of like having less stuff that just panics people. Do you think it’s related to this atomization?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think we are—I think it’s this self-reinforcing cycle, right? Where we’re getting from—we’re projecting onto our consumer products our identity, our community, and we are constructing ourselves through consumption, and so that if you tell people they have to consume less, it’s not seen as you want to take away my stuff, it’s you want to take away myself. Like it is a very profound—

JOHANN HARI: Oh, that’s fascinating.

NAOMI KLEIN: —panic that it induces, that has to do with this surrogate role that like we’re shopping for so much more than stuff in our culture, right? So, but yeah, I mean, what’s interesting, too, I mean, all the debates about economic growth. Like if we let go of growth as our primary measure of success, then we would have to talk about what we actually value, like what is it that we want. And that’s what we can’t really do, because then we have to—you know, then we’re having a conversation about values and well-being and defining that. And so, growth allows us to avoid that conversation that we are not able to have, for a whole bunch of reasons. Now, I—

JOHANN HARI: This is why you have to read This Changes Everything.

NAOMI KLEIN: No. In fact, I asked Ben to put all of the copies of This Changes Everything in the back. And, no, this is about your book tonight, but thank you for being so sweet. And I see lots of people nodding and thinking, so I think it would be a good time to open it up and ask some questions of Johann.

JOHANN HARI: Great. I will tell you the stupidest question I’ve been asked so far, which is, after one of the events, someone came up to me—none of you will say this, because we’re in Canada. Someone came up to me and said—I can’t do the accent—”Do you think there’s a connection between the war on drugs and aliens?” And I thought he meant illegal aliens, meaning undocumented workers, so I gave this quite long answer about the Mexican cartels and people smuggling. He’s like, “No, no, no. I mean extraterrestrials.” And I had to say in this very proper British voice, “I don’t think there’s a connection between the war on drugs and extraterrestrials, because I don’t think extraterrestrials exist,” which then anathemized all the Americans around me. Anyway, sorry. Hello.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yes, you.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: There’s someone at the back.

NAOMI KLEIN: Someone at the back. No, I saw you first. And then we will go to the person at the back.


AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I’m curious, Johann. In my travels over to Europe—I have the opportunity through work, I’m there almost twice a month—I had read that in a few of the countries, specifically one of them, Portugal, they had not only decriminalized the drugs, but they decriminalized addiction and put it as a health risk that the state has to treat. In your travels, has anybody spoken of that? Because I haven’t seen any results of that.

JOHANN HARI: I’ve gone there. Yeah, I spent loads of time. So, did you guys all hear that? Do you want me to repeat it? Yeah, OK, so yeah, so I went—and this big bit of the book is about this, answering this question. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, much worse than anything that’s ever happened in North America. And every year they tried the American way more and more, and every year it got worse. So they arrested more people, imprisoned more people, all that stuff. And one day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together, and they basically said, “Look, we can’t go on like this. Let’s set up a scientific panel to figure out what would actually solve it. And let’s agree, in advance, that we’ll do whatever they recommend.” So it just took it out of politics. It was really clever. They did that.

The panel goes away, led by this amazing man called João Goulão, and they come back about a year and a half later. And they basically said, “Decriminalize everything, from cannabis to crack. But”—and this is the crucial thing—”transfer all the money we used to spend on arresting drug addicts, imprisoning drug addicts, trying them, all of that, spend it on really good drug treatment.” And it’s not really what we think of as drug treatment in North America. There is rehab, and there is psychological support, and that’s valuable. But it’s much more rehab based on the lessons of Rat Park. It’s about reconnecting addicts with society. The goal of the decriminalization was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. So, say you used to be a mechanic, you got a smack problem, you know, your life fell apart. When you’re ready, they’ll got to a garage, and they’ll say, “If you employ this guy for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.” Or microloans for addicts, so like they’re given a microloan to set up a removals firm or something. And that was the main emphasis of it.

And the results are in. It’s been nearly 15 years. Injecting drug use is down by 50 percent—five-zero percent. Overdose is massively down. Every study shows broader addiction is massively down. But the thing that shows this really worked is it’s a very competitive political system, and no one wants to go back. And one of the most moving interviews I did—I think he thought I was a bit insane, actually; I got quite emotional at the end. This guy called João Figueira, who was the top drug cop in Portugal, led the opposition to the decriminalization and said, “This is madness.” Right? “We’re going to have an explosion of drug use.” All that stuff. And I went and interviewed him. 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 side said would happen did.” And he talked about how he was ashamed that he had spent so many years arresting drug users, and it was a complete waste of time and cruel, and he hoped the whole world would follow Portugal’s example. And it was like, “Wow!” OK? And especially after going to these awful places, where like, you know—actually, if I’m completely honest, I put off going to Portugal for quite a long time, because I thought if the alternatives don’t work, this will be the most depressing book ever written. Right? But actually, it worked unbelievably well. So, yeah.

NAOMI KLEIN: And, you know, that is the mirror opposite of, certainly, what the U.S. does. If you have a criminal record, it’s so incredibly hard to get a job, and you can’t vote in so many states. And, you know, you’re stigmatized, right, if you—and what’s the percentage of the prison population that is in on drug charges?

JOHANN HARI: I can’t remember the stat figure. I know that one of the killer stats—this is mind-blowing—is that they’ve also got 2.2 million people in prison. And the U.S. has such a massive prison population relative to any society that’s ever been, including like Maoist China. And such a high proportion are raped that the U.S. today is almost certainly the first society ever where more men have been raped than women, which is kind of, you know, mind-blowing.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I think you said 90 percent.

JOHANN HARI: Yeah, I think so, but I don’t want to say it wrong, so—I think you’re right.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, but that’s—it’s the anti-therapy of further isolating and—yeah.

JOHANN HARI: Love the phrase “anti-therapy.” I wish you I had—if you said that to me.

NAOMI KLEIN: So, someone was back there with their hand up? What’s—



NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, hi.

LISA CAMPBELL: My name’s Lisa Campbell, and I’m the outreach director for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

JOHANN HARI: Oh, hooray!

LISA CAMPBELL: Yay! So we’re really excited that you’re here. We really wanted you to be at our conference at the end of the month, so it’s great to see you in person. I just wanted to ask you about harm reduction and creating a political dialogue nationally, because we have an election coming up in Canada. We’ve made a lot of progress in harm reduction in Canada. We have Insite, which is one of the only safe injection sites in North America. But our Conservative government is introducing more red tape to stop further sites from opening. So I’m wondering, how do we create a dialogue about sensible drug policy with our political leaders, and how can we take away the stigma and make drug policy a porch issue?

JOHANN HARI: Well, thank you for what you’re doing. You know, Students for Sensible Drug Policy is some of the smartest and best campaigners on this anywhere, so you should be so proud of what you’re doing. And please come and talk to me afterwards.

I think one of the ways we do the harm reduction, it’s really interesting. I went to Switzerland, where they’ve legalized heroin for addicts, right? I’m a Swiss citizen as well as a British citizen. Switzerland is an extremely right-wing country. My Swiss relatives make, you know, Michele Bachmann look like Bernie Sanders. They are crazy, right? When I—actually, I better not say some of the awful things that they’ve said in public. But, you know, like, when I told one of my uncles I was doing a book about this, he said, “I know what’s the solution to drug addiction.” And I said, “Oh, what’s that, Uncle?” He said, “Get the addicts to dig their own grave, and then shoot them into the grave. Is that what your book says?” And it’s like, “Not quite.” But, anyway, which is to say, nonetheless, the Swiss people have voted twice in referenda, by huge majorities, 70 percent of the people who voted, to legalize heroin for addicts.

And the way they did it is really interesting and, I think, really important for how we’ll end this, the drug war. They did not use a compassion-based argument about addicts. They used an order-based argument. Basically, the way they explained it was: What we have now is anarchy. Unknown criminals sell unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark. You get disease and chaos and filth in our lovely clockwork parks and all the kind of—you know, they really do love their clockwork, right? And whereas legalization is a way of restoring order. It’s a way of reclaiming this trade from armed criminal gangs and transferring it to clinics.

So what happens is, if you’re a heroin addict in Switzerland, if you go to the doctor and you can prove you’re a heroin addict, which is not very hard, they will assign you to a clinic, and you can go whenever you want, and they will give you free heroin. Right? You can’t take it out; you’ve got to use it there.

And, I mean, the figures were incredible. There has been no fatal overdoses—none. The overdose rate is zero. I can’t remember the stat for HIV transmission, but it’s an absolutely massive fall. But the ones that really persuaded people were the falls in street crime. Like, the exact stats are in the book, but it’s something like a 90 percent fall in street crime, some like absolutely astronomical figure.

So, it’s partly about appealing to people’s conservative instincts about the desire for order and cleanliness and all of those things, which is not our natural—well, there are kind of—it’s true, so, you know, it’s not like a rhetorical ploy. It is actually true that you do get all those things when you legalize in a smart way, when—it’s worth saying, legalization does not mean, obviously, anyone can buy anything. No one wants there to be a crack aisle in CVS. You know, legalization means different things for different drugs. It means regulating them, you know, in various ways.


PENNY: Hello. First, I’d just like to say that, from my own professional opinion, your work is absolutely brilliant.

JOHANN HARI: Oh, thank you.

PENNY: It’s brilliant. And it’s been a long time in coming and well overdue. I’ve worked for the last 20 years in the provincial system with the most vulnerable and marginalized women in the province of Ontario who are in conflict with the criminal justice system. And the sad reality is, is—well, of course, for those of us who are converted, we know that trauma and addictions go hand in hand.


PENNY: We know that we’ve criminalized poverty. We’ve criminalized mental health. And we’ve successfully criminalized addictions. And although I absolutely, wholeheartedly subscribe to what you say, and I’m the greatest fan of Gabor Maté, where the real dilemma lies is not in those of us who are converted or understand. It’s fighting a system with people who are situationally influenced. They are—they’re judgmental. They deindividuate the people in their custody and humiliate, degrade, oppress, and somehow expect to open the doors and let that person leave and [inaudible]. So there’s just no political will. It’s not sexy to help women who are disadvantaged or in poverty. And we have women that we’re keeping alive. And yet “harm reduction” is a dirty word. And we’re keeping them alive. We’re seeing women coming into custody, since they took the oxys away, who are now injecting fentanyl and getting serious—like losing limbs, [inaudible] paralyzed. We have women who are living behind dumpsters and smoking crack all night to stay awake, because they have nowhere to live. And where do they get that? How do they—how do they get the money? Well, they engage in the sex trade. And although the numbers for women with hep C provincially are estimated at 42 percent, which is 20 times the national average, the fact of the matter is it’s much higher than that. It’s probably in the 60s, and it’s twice that of the men.


PENNY: Because women have difficulty negotiating safe sex.

JOHANN HARI: And that was one of the really—thank you for the work you’re doing, because that’s hugely important. That was one of the really fascinating lessons from Switzerland, as well. Street prostitution disappeared for quite a long time after they introduced heroin prescription. It literally disappeared. There wasn’t any. And actually, that really needs to be a really important part of the debate about prostitution. So there’s this debate, you know, where you’ve got the kind of people who regard themselves as, you know, in favor of the sex trade, people who are against. And I kind of think, in a way, that’s a valuable debate, and I have opinions on it. But actually, if you just—if you prescribe drugs, given that most of it goes away, that should be the first step before we have any of the rest of the debate, you know.

I think what you’re saying is really important, and I kind of would rather talk to you about it afterwards. But as you were saying that, I pictured, you know, when I went to that prison in Arizona. They took me to the hall, which is what they call it. I was surprised they took me. It’s a solitary confinement block. And these women who are put in there, for like almost nothing, like having a cigarette—and it just suddenly struck me when I was there: This is the closest you could ever get to a literal human recreation of the original cages that guaranteed addiction. It just suddenly drove home to me.

And what you’re saying about no one gives a [expletive] about these women, the most shocking story in the whole book, I think, or that I would like—you know, there’s several shocking ones. The thing that most shocked me, when I went to Arizona, I interviewed a woman called Donna Leone Hamm, who is an amazing woman, who’s one of the only two people who works on prisoners’ rights in Arizona. And I asked her this question which I ask everyone, which is: Tell me about something that shocked you. So she was going down this long list, and somewhere down the list she said, “There was the time they put that woman in a cage and cooked her. That was bad.” And then she carried on. And I said, “Sorry, Donna, could you go back a second?”

There was a woman called Marcia Powell, about whom almost nothing was known when I started doing the research, except that she was a chronic meth addict who kept being put in prison either for having meth or for prostituting herself to get meth. And one day she woke up in this prison, Perryville Prison, in 2009, and she was suicidal. And the doctor didn’t believe her. So they took her outside, and they put her in a cage. And this is the desert, an exposed cage in the desert. And they left her there. And she cried, and she begged for water, and she [expletive] herself. And when they—she collapsed. And when they finally called an ambulance, she had been cooked. And no one was ever punished criminally for what happened to Marcia Powell.

You know, and I then went and found the father of her children and got this heart-breaking story of her life, which you would know better than anyone. You know, she had been thrown out of home when she was 13. She had lived on the beach. She had almost certainly prostituted herself as a child to survive. You know, she had actually had a period of her life when she got clean, for quite a long time, came back to Arizona to get her kids, who had been taken into state care, and was busted on an old marijuana charge, and her whole life fell apart again, and ended up, you know…

You know that hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter? Which I think is fantastic. We need a hashtag, #AddictsLivesMatter. You know, we need to—the part of the project we have now is to humanize those addicts. You know, Bud, Billie Holiday, Marcia Powell—these are people, you know? And we are not acting like they’re people.

PENNY: And when you hear—and I heard a decision maker at a very high level who said to me, “Penny, women in conflict with the criminal justice system are statistically insignificant.”


PENNY: How do you fight that?

JOHANN HARI: That reminds me of something that Liz Evans, who worked at the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, said to me. The health minister—I’ve forgotten his name—I think she asked me not to use it, actually. A former health minister, was at the time the Canadian health minister, came and was shown around the Portland Hotel Society, where they worked with hardcore addicts. And he said to her at one point, “So, Liz, what proportion of the people here do you just regard as write-offs?” And Liz had to kind of pause and just try to think how to say, “Well, no one. We don’t regard any human being as a write-off, you know.” Yeah.

NAOMI KLEIN: And if I could just—you know, this reminds me of the intersection with racism in this country, and particularly indigenous women, and how that plays out in the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women. So I’ll just say, for people who are just wanting to do something soon, February 14th is the day in this country where much-needed attention is going to be focused on that issue. There’s marches in 20 cities, at least, including in Toronto, and going to police headquarters. So look into the memorial march, and if you can, go, because all these issues come together in those stolen lives. There’s one more, one more. Who had—OK.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: I had my hand up, but I—


AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: I think a lot of it was touched on already. I was just, you know, thinking of Gabor Maté’s connection between addiction and trauma.


AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: And then, I just was also agreeing that we have a real systemic problem. I don’t think people in positions of power want to end addiction. I think that some of these systems are in place to keep people addicted for a reason. So, that was just to add to what was already said.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and, I mean, this is—you know, reading Johann’s book—and that’s going to be the last question, because I want people to have a chance to come and talk to Johann privately and get your book signed, and it’s snowy out there. But obviously this history is intimately tied to social control and populations being controlled. And, you know, you talk about the unbelievable double standard between the way Billie Holiday was treated and Judy Garland was treated, who had an addiction problem at the same time. So, maybe you can just close off on that point.

JOHANN HARI: Sure. Yeah, when Harry Anslinger found out—

NAOMI KLEIN: Or whatever you feel like.

JOHANN HARI: When Harry Anslinger found out that Judy Garland was a heroin addict, he advised her to take longer vacations and told the studio she was going to be fine. Compare and contrast with Billie Holiday, you may notice a small difference between them.

I think what you said is really important. I think there’s this crucial distinction. You said people in power don’t want to end addiction. It’s very interesting. David Cameron, my prime minister—well, I say “mine.” Against my will, my prime minister. You know, it’s been reported—I’m not giving anything away—that he has a close relative who had an addiction problem. He didn’t call the police. His addict went to a lovely—his addicted relative went to a lovely, nice rehab and, you know, was given all the care in the world. When someone—I’ve yet to find any evidence of a political leader who, when their relative becomes an addict, calls the cops. You know, they don’t want this applied to the people they care about. This is very much, you know, something for poor people, disadvantaged people.

And actually, I’ll just end with one story about Harry Anslinger. I’m slightly giving away a twist at the end of the book, but what the hell. Harry Anslinger found out—not long after he found out Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are heroin addicts, he found out that Senator Joe McCarthy had an opium addiction. And Anslinger, as you may have guessed, loved McCarthy, right? And he goes to McCarthy, and he says, basically, “Joe, you’ve got to stop.” And Joe McCarthy says, “Screw you. I’m going to do what I want.” Harry Anslinger arranges for Joe McCarthy to have a private prescription that he collect at a Washington, D.C., pharmacy, where he’d get his drugs. So when—even Harry Anslinger, when he’s confronted with someone he cares about, becomes a bleeding-heart, compassionate liberal. You know, no one wants the drug war enforced against anyone we care about. And partly, I guess, what you’re saying and what I’m saying is we should care about everyone. No one should be the people who we don’t want the rules enforced against.

Thank you all for coming. Thanks. Thank you, Naomi.

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StoryNov 24, 2022Dr. Gabor Maté on “The Myth of Normal,” Healing in a Toxic Culture & How Capitalism Fuels Addiction
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