Johann Hari, journalist and writer, has spent the past three years travelling the world to discover the origins, uncover the secrets, and debunk the myths, of the War on Drugs. Along the way, he encountered a host of fascinating individuals – from drug policy reformists, to cartel gangsters, to police chiefs, to addicts – and he tells their stories with compassion and careful precision in his new book, Chasing The Scream. By interweaving the myriad consequences of the global War on Drugs, Hari paints a clear and horrifying picture of a very genuine war that has ravaged the lives of millions for far too long.
Johann joined Avinash Tharoor, editor of The Prohibition Post, for this exclusive interview:
AT: The fundamental notion of your book is that contemporary drug policy – the War on Drugs – is a failure. What do you think is the ideal alternative to the status quo?
JH: I don’t think it is for us to lie out. Different places will have different solutions. What works in Mississippi won’t necessarily work in Vietnam. What works in Vietnam won’t necessarily work in Peru. We must cautiously experiment with different alternatives.
At the moment, we have a completely unregulated market: unknown criminals sell unknown chemicals to unknown users. We need to experiment with alternatives. We’ve had one hundred years of prohibition; we gave it a fair shot. There is nowhere that has experimented with alternatives to prohibition that regrets it.
In Portugal, a clever move happened: senior leaders of the political parties got together and decided to do whatever a scientific panel recommended about drugs. In 2001, the panel came back and recommended that the state decriminalise the use of all drugs, and transfer resources from the prosecution of drug addicts, to the reconnection of addicts with society. So that’s what they did. By giving addicts a purpose, the rates of injecting heroin, drug overdose, and HIV transmissions all went down. Nobody wants to go back. Even João Figueira, the leader of the Lisbon Drugs Squad and the main Portuguese proponent of the anti-reform campaign, admitted to me that the things that they were afraid of didn’t happen.
Following this model would be a very smart move for Britain. We need to start a Royal Commission, and get the main parties to agree to do what these smart people say.
AT: Why do you think that implementing drug policy reform has been more successful in Portugal, and other countries, than it has been in Britain?
JH: We don’t have enough grassroots campaigning around changing drug policy in Britain, and there’s a lot that needs to be changed. We need to widen change in cultural attitudes toward addicts, drugs and the drug war. One interesting thing about the British landscape is that almost all the party leaders have – in the past – said good things about changing drug policy. Even Nigel Farage, who I’d never praise on any other issue ever, used to be brilliant on this issue. David Cameron was very good when he was on the Home Affairs Select Committee, but he’s been poor on this issue as prime minister. Nick Clegg has been good in the words he says, but not in his actions.
AT: It seems that many political leaders do recognise the failures of the War on Drugs. So, why do you think that they don’t act upon this?
JH: I think what we’re doing really is waiting for the cultural change that would make reform possible. Part of doing that is explaining to the public that legalisation is not what they think it is; it’s not a free-for-all where everybody can or should use drugs. That would actually be a disaster. When we explain to people what legalisation and decriminalisation actually are, they’re much more receptive to it.
I very rarely drink alcohol, yet I’m not in favour of alcohol prohibition. But nobody would regard that as weird. We all accept that alcohol can do some harm, but banning it would do even more harm without dealing with the harms that alcohol causes. It should be possible for us to communicate that it’s the same with drugs.
I predict that when Obama leaves office, he will come out for ending the drug war. Politicians usually become brave after leaving office, but there are exceptions. Ruth Dreifuss [the first female president of the Swiss Federation] had a movement of doctors and harm-reductionists demanding reform. Philip Owen, the former mayor of Vancouver, had a movement of addicts and their friends and relatives demanding reform. I asked them why they were brave enough to create reform when others aren’t, and they said, “Because people pressured me”. Political change happens because popular movements and ordinary people demand it.
AT: What do you think needs to be done to generate that popular support for drug policy reform?
JH: Liberal and left wing people are already on our side. We need to answer to conservative people. Look at From the Mountaintops (PDF), a pamphlet by Joanna Csete from the Open Society Foundation about the Swiss heroin legalisation campaign. Now, Switzerland is a really right wing place, so they had a campaign that was very conservative. It said that drug war means anarchy; criminals controlling a trade and addicts ruining our public places. It said that the legal route to heroin is restoring order, getting addicts away from criminals. Liberty-based arguments are not popular among conservatives, but order-based arguments work really well. I really don’t know why there isn’t a big legalisation movement – particularly for marijuana – from the British right; it’s a massive failed ‘big government’ programme.
AT: Do you feel that there are consequences of the War on Drugs that are not being appropriately addressed in Britain?
JH: I’m sure that a large proportion of these stabbings happening in Britain are drug gang-related violence. We need to talk about this as a country. Why doesn’t Oddbins [the wine retail chain] blow up the drinks aisle at Sainsbury’s? People who work at Oddbins aren’t necessarily nice people. But if I steal alcohol from Oddbins, they’ll call the police. If your marijuana is stolen then, as a dealer, you can’t call the police. You have to make people scared. You have to fight back. You have to create a culture of terror.
The American writer, Charles Bowden, said that the war on drugs creates a war for drugs. Britain’s War on Drugs is not as barbaric as others, but our war for drugs is absolutely disastrous and involves a lot of violence and brutality. I think we need to have a very serious conversation about that. None of that has to happen. Where are the violent alcohol dealers? It’s not something that’s inherent to alcohol but not to marijuana. It’s to do with how we’ve chosen to regulate alcohol and not marijuana.
AT: While undertaking research for Chasing The Scream, you travelled to parts of the world that have been devastated by the violence of the drug trade. Did you feel fearful for your life while researching in some of the more hostile environments?
JH: I’ve been to some awful places in my life. I’ve been to Congo, to Gaza, to Iraq. What I saw in [the Mexican border town of] Juarez ranked up there. One of the moments that really shocked me was when I was with Julián Cardona – my fixer, and an amazing journalist – and he kept telling me about people whom the police had killed. I said that I wanted to learn about people who had been killed by the cartels and he replied, “You don’t understand. When the cartels want to kill someone, they pay the police to do it. They’re not separate forces. They’re the same thing.” That was the moment that I really got how terrifying it must be. Imagine if the police were the people coming to kill you, that there’s no authority at all.
So yes, there is an inherent danger in going to Juarez. The conviction rate for murder is two percent, and that two percent didn’t do it. Basically murder is legal to all intents and purposes. There were moments when even the people I were interviewing were scared for me, and that was a bit disorientating and frightening.
AT: Russell Brand has become a prominent supporter of drug policy reform, and you have collaborated with him on several projects (including this discussion about the drug war). He has, however, created some controversy in the drug policy movement by advocating an abstinence-based approach for treating addiction. What sort of approach do you advocate for treating drug addiction?
JH: I hugely admire the work that Russell has done on this issue. He is my friend and his heart is in the right place. I’ve had this conversation with him many times. For the people for whom abstinence works, it’s absolutely fantastic, but with something as complex as human addiction, there needs to be a menu of ways to respond. One of those ways needs to be what Russell advocates; abstinence, the 12-step programme. But there must be other things on the menu – not opposed to that, but complimentary harm reduction and support, clean needles, substitution therapy. And there should be third tier, the Portugal model: the reconnection of adults with society. Promoting abstinence is great, but the important thing is giving addicts a purpose in life. Having a meaning and purpose in life stops people from slipping into addiction. Criminalising addicts is a way for these people to be deprived of meaning and purpose.
I hope the people that I know who are addicts will choose abstinence, I agree with Russell on that, but I’ll just offer them as much love and support as I can.
AT: Which organisations do you think stand out in the international drug policy reform movement?
JH: In Britain we have an absolutely superb policy analysis tier in the Transform Drug Policy Foundation; nobody in the world is doing better policy analysis. Danny and Steve have taught me an enormous amount. When they started work, reform was a mad fringe issue; now President Mujica [of Uruguay] has turned to them for advice. We need a grassroots campaigning wing of Transform – it’s on a limited budget. Anyone reading this should get involved.
The Drug Policy Alliance is absolutely superb, and INPUD, The International Network of People who Use Drugs, is a great group. Students for Sensible Drug Policy are doing very good stuff, and LEAP – Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – is an amazing group. They can really explain to people why we need to end the war on drugs; order-based arguments are the best for the average person.
AT: Do you think that serious reform of drug policy is foreseeable?
JH: A close friend of mine, Andrew Sullivan, was diagnosed as HIV positive in the early nineties. All his friends were dying around him. Andrew thought that he was about to die. He wrote a book called Virtually Normal – the first book to make a case for gay marriage. When it was published, Andrew was viciously attacked by other gay people for being a ‘sellout’ and wanting to make us like heterosexuals, while also being massively attacked by the right. If you had told Andrew that, 25 years from then, there’s going to be a U.S. Supreme Court judgement quoting your book, and then the president, who is Black, will invite you for dinner at the White House, it would have seemed like the most ridiculous science fiction. Yet, it happened. Andrew lived to see it.
The world gets better in unimaginable ways. We have so much more power than we think. Things can improve so much. Anything can change. I say to anybody who is pessimistic, think about what the world was like for your grandmother, and think about what the world is like now. We can end this War.
Chasing The Scream is available for purchase. Find out more online.