By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Johann Hari
Narration by: Tim Gerard Reynolds
Despite some reservation about Johann Hari, “Chasing the Scream” is a persuasive argument for regulated decriminalization of addictive drugs. Hari visits several countries of the world, either metaphorically or literally, to evaluate the war on drugs.
As is widely believed by many, the war on drugs is a failure. Mexico’s violent cartels and America’s burdened prisons are damning evidence of the drug war’s failure. The war neither abates murder rates nor reduces addictions. Like alcohol prohibition’s effect on growth of the Mafia, criminalizing addictive drugs has led to today’s drug cartels.
Hari explains how society has generally accepted many false notions about addictive drugs and their use around the world. Presumption that drug use, addiction, and death are directly correlated is challenged by Hari and others noted in his book. Many people take addictive drugs for reasons other than desire for a high. Some take drugs to escape the drudgery of their lives. Some take drugs to blunt the remembrance of past trauma. Some take drugs to lessen pain and/or aid recovery. Not all people who take drugs (either prescribed or purchased on the street) become addicted. Hari suggests many addictive drug takers are hardworking, productive members of society.
Drug overdoses are often not self-inflicted or caused by uncontrollable desire. Hari explains some overdoses are a result of illegal sellers’ improper cutting of addictive drugs with foreign substances. To make illegal drugs less expensive, drug doses are cut with cement powder and other harmful substances. Drugs are packaged by street distributors so that a manufacturer’s delivery can be split into more packages. More packages increase the volume and profitability of sales. Drug adulteration is inaccurately included in overdose statistics.
Hari explains that other overdoses can also be caused by extraordinary purification. The illegal manufacturer will highly purify drugs to make distribution in smaller packages that are easier to hide when transported. If a manufacturer’s drug is not cut, its purity is underestimated and the user accidentally overdoses. Hari notes that the same was true during alcohol prohibition when “white lightening” became popular. “White lightening” or moonshine is highly concentrated alcohol. These high-proof distilled spirits killed people during prohibition but it was easier and cheaper to transport than barrels of beer or diluted whiskey.
Hari builds an argument that implies a small number of people who take addictive drugs actually become addicted. His point is that the drug is not causing the addiction but the person’s social insecurity or desire for relief from pain or relief from traumatic experience are the compelling force for repeated drug use.
Hari argues that much of the illness in people who take street drugs is from toxic substances used to cut drugs, the dirty needles used to shoot drugs, and the horrendous conditions in which drug users live. Hari draws the conclusion that drugs themselves are less the cause of addiction than the environmental and psychological conditions of the person who takes drugs.
First of many things Hari writes about as a cure is for society to recognize all people are fellow human beings; including those taking or addicted to drugs. When that is forgotten, people lose their humanity. The confessed or observed drug user is looked at as a problem at the very least, or as subhuman at the worst. Objectifying human beings is the first step in degrading and then treating humans as slaves, property, or miscreant animals who are less important than others. It is easier to degrade, isolate, and mistreat someone who is different; e.g. someone classified as an addict. Objectification is a syndrome that allows humans to mistreat, discriminate, and murder each other. It justifies putting addicts in jail or ignoring them as they lie in the street or sleep under an overpass in their urine soaked clothing. It is the same syndrome that makes most of us ignore beggars and homeless people. The general public’s judgment is that others are in their condition because of their own choices; not because of societal neglect, childhood abuse, or economic circumstance.
Hari summarizes three ideas for treating drug users, whether addicted or not. First, recognize their humanity. Second, legalize drugs. Third, regulate drug use. All three of these ideas could be implemented with existing infrastructure in viably governed countries. The first requires listening and understanding the drug taker and being supportive rather than punitive. The second and third idea is for a political movement to legalize and control distribution of potentially addictive drugs. (As of mid-2015, 23 States have some form of Marijuana legalization.) These actions are not a cheap or easy fix, but in America it is unlikely to be any more costly than today’s law enforcement and penal incarceration.
First, Hari argues drug users should not be jailed or isolated for drug-use. They should be detained, fined, and directed to attend treatment facilities that provide help. The help may be to provide the drug a user needs, for as long as is necessary, but it is to be prescribed by a qualified medical practitioner. The drug would only be produced by a government regulated drug manufacturer. The societal objective is to provide medical and psychological support to make a patient feel socially supported, capable of looking for a job, and becoming self-sufficient.
Second, Hari implies that all potentially addictive drugs, when legalized, would have the same manufacturing requirements of current government regulated drug companies. Hari suggests all prescriptions for potentially addictive drugs would be supervised by medical practitioners. One presumes, like marijuana legalization, addictive drugs would be taxed to help balance the budget for addictive drug-user’s services.
Hari suggests that legalization and regulation of illegal drugs would more widely clarify their effects. As an example he notes studies show constant marijuana use has memory loss effects that can become permanent. With cigarette warnings, and ubiquitous information included in or on packaging, Hari infers users will temper their indiscriminate use of potentially harmful drugs.
Third, Hari gives the examples of Portugal and Switzerland where medical and psychological treatment is available to potential addicts at the same level as the general population for other diagnosed diseases. Hari argues the effect of this change in drug enforcement will drive cartels out of the drug business just as the mafia was driven out of the alcohol business in the 1930s. Further, Hari suggests attitudes will improve because of a different role for police in arresting for treatment rather than punishment.
Hari acknowledges the probable downside is that the level of addiction may increase in the short-term, but he implies generational addiction will be mitigated by time and education. He draws that conclusion from the experience of alcohol consumption after the end of prohibition. However, just as the number of people who no longer smoke, it seems reasonable to assume the same will occur with addictive drugs. Hari presumes there will always be some unrepentant addicts just as there are unrepentant smokers.
Smoking has become socially and medically less acceptable in America. It seems reasonable to believe the same would happen with a designed program that both treats and educates the public on the medical and psychological effects of drug addiction.
Years of the drug war have not accomplished any of the objectives one presumes it is designed to achieve. It is estimated that 44,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses. This number excludes the many people murdered by drug cartels. The recently announced policy of restricted doctor’s prescriptions for addictive drug treatment of chronic disease is unlikely to reduce the number of drug overdoses or the human desire for escape, or relief. What doctors fail to supply, the underworld will serve.
As long as drug cartels can profit from illicitly manufactured and distributed drugs, people will die and addiction will proliferate. Hari’s book suggests a more humane and human alternative to the war on drugs.