Chasing The Scream

Johann Hari

Bloomsbury Press



As a starting point to this review I have one question.  According to the lancet, What is the most harmful drug?
Coincidentally shortly in the week where two people were shot and murdered in separate instances on Dublin’s streets I started reading ‘Chasing the scream’, courtesy of El presidente. Ironically enough this book was given to me as a present by one of the very few adults I know that doesn’t drink alcohol, smoke or take drugs. When I look in the mirror I see another one. I have never participated and found it ironic ( and still do to a certain extent) that I know people who wish to “smash the system” and will boycott nestle or other companies over dubious business practices but seem to think it’s ok to assist in the profits of alcohol companies or drug lords. Just because I don’t take them though doesn’t mean I can’t see the merit in decriminalisation and the case is made constantly throughout these pages. Just as people who drink alcohol have a 90% chance of becoming alcoholic the figures are similar for drug users. Imagine how different the world would look like if the money was taken from fighting drug crime to treatment centres and awareness
This weeks killings in Dublin were acted out in open spaces with many people acting as bystanders, dragged into events by virtue of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The perpetrators and victims, if media are to be believed, were involved or linked by blood relation to Dublins criminal underworld. Much of this underworld are involved in the sale and distribution of drugs.
And that’s where Chasing the scream comes in. It charts the beginning of the drug war and how just over a century ago department stores were selling heroin nets. We begin with three individuals born into a time when the war on drugs had not yet started but was about to play a huge part in their lives
Harry Anslinger was an FBI agent assigned to what was become the war on drugs. Whether it was a war on drugs or on minorities using them is up to question as much of Anslingers language would not be tolerated today
Billie holidays story is a real tale of wrong place wrong te. Orphaned and destitute
Of course every war has victims. Victims of circumstances and in some cases geography. Soldiers don’t always have a historical reason or a sense of belonging. Sometimes they just fall into it. Chino is one. Destined for a life of destitution, it seems that Chino was always going to end on the streets in a spiral of drug abuse and violence. The war on drugs creates many casualties and drug dealers in many instances are casualties “..exploded and discarded shells, left behind on a global battlefield”. People in their radar can be casualties but the majority of violence isn’t around the action of taking drugs, it’s around the fight for power. Hari explains that in great detail and looking at the recent killings in Dublin only copper fastens that. A fight over territory so that more money can be made. He also speaks to people on all sides, including  those responsible for enforcing the law, however it is noticeable that increasing arrests haven’t led to decreasing number of drug deals
There are other victims written about here. New York, Mexico, Texas. All places with people struggling through life and somehow with a vision for a better world, a world that if it arrives is only temporary. Take Mexico and its 70,000 dead (that’s SEVENTY THOUSAND PEOPLE murdered in a country). What hope is there?  We need hope but with the drug war continuing it is hard to find it.
There is a fascinating chapter on the people who fall into addiction. There is a a theory that says addiction is not about usage it’s more akin to easing pain. The 10% of drug users who become addicts do so for a reason and maybe it’s not down to repetitive use.  Why do addicts keep doing it? we are asked  “because it makes them feel good, and the rest of their life doesn’t make them feel good”. Hari asks why isn’t more time spent looking at the people and their environment rather than biochemistry and the brain. Of course it is a valid point even if you’re sceptical of the underlying reasons. The way we view addicts is another aspect for consideration if someone is being treated for alcohol addiction there is almost sympathy, how different is that viewpoint for a drug addict. Portugese authorities are starting to view their addicts with sympathy. As drug use is no longer criminalised on lisbons streets there is a feeling “we all want to protect our children from drugs, we all want to keep people dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And the evidence suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve these goals with shared success.
Another interesting aspect and a potential solution to assisting addicts and society at large is the idea of a social recovery. We are all in a rush to be consumers. Working more and buying more. This is have devastating effects on our environment but yet we continue. Why not pursue this? Cities like Licerpool, Vancouver and Geneva have all, to varying effects, set up injection clinics where heroin is provided in a controlled environment. This has reduced drug crime and deaths. Why not spend money in this rather than in crime prevention and detention?
Former Swiss president, Ruth dreifuss, is asked what she would say to David Cameron and Barack Obama should they be stuck in a lift together. “You are responsible for all of your citizens, and being responsible means protecting them and giving them the means to protect themselves. There is no group that you can abandon”. Yet it seems those involved in drugs are being abandoned.
As someone who walked the streets to first stop animal experiments in March 1983 and whose feelings haven’t wavered since I’m disappointed to read of tests with rats around the use of opiates. These tests are given ink but I can’t point to their validity. It sidetracked the issue for me and would be far more comfortable if it wasn’t raised.
I finished this book as we entered our general election frenzy and smiled wryly as hari observes “in a true democracy, nobody gets written off. Nobody gets abandoned. The revolution lives”. Some day maybe. To a country near you.
Oh an the answer is alcohol

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