Ending the Drug War: An Interview with Johann Hari

The author of Chasing the Scream talks the results of the drug war with us.

john-hariI write and read about addiction and drug culture all the time and to my own shock, I was constantly being enlightened throughout Johann Hari’s new captivating book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It’s a thrilling read that creates a unified image of what the world looks like after a hundred years of drug war.

Below is an interview with Johann where he tells of his discoveries and stories, full of heart and heartbreak, on his travels cataloging an absurd war that should’ve never been.

I’m really excited to be speaking with you. In your book, the several narratives, both historical and current, are all woven together beautifully which, I think, served to ground lofty abstractions like “the drug war” and “the drug addict” and even “addiction” itself. I thought it was remarkably empathic and impactful. Very moving. Well done.

Thank you, really. I’m so glad you said that because I think one of the things that has really gone wrong with this debate for the last one hundred years—ever since drugs have been criminalized—is that we talk like we’re at some philosophical seminar about the way the world should be. I didn’t want to do that. I firmly wanted to write a book about how people’s actual lives are actually affected by this.

You traveled to nine different countries, a 30,000 mile trip. Did you wake up one day and hop on the road? What prompted your journey?

I think it was a combination of things. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. As I got older, I realized that I had a lot of addiction in my family. I think, like a lot of people who have backgrounds in addiction, I was very drawn to addicts; I was in a relationship with an addict. Another close relative of mine, closer to me in age, had also developed a very bad cocaine addiction.

I kind of realized in the middle of all this that we were coming up to 100 years since the War on Drugs began. Two global wars began in 1914: the First World War and the War on Drugs, which has yet to end. I also realized that I had some basic questions that I didn’t know the answers to, though, I had written about this stuff for years as a newspaper columnist and felt I knew quite a lot. So really basic questions like, why were drugs banned in the first place a hundred years ago? Why do we carry on with the strategy we’ve got when so many can see it doesn’t work? What really causes drug use and drug addiction? And what are the alternatives like? Where are they being tried?

I wanted to know what this is like on the ground, all over the world, for real people. That meant just going to sit with people and spend some time with them: from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn to a hitman for the Zetas in Mexico, to doctors in the only country in the entire world where every drug, from cannabis to crack, is decriminalized.

Is there any one anecdote or moving moment that sticks out while traveling that you’d like to share?

Oh, there’s so many. For me, one of the moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life was meeting Bud Osborn.

In the year 2000, Bud Osborn was a homeless addict on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Downtown Eastside has the highest concentration of addicts in North America. It’s the place at the end of the line and locals call it “Terminal City.” Bud was watching his friends die all around him. People would use behind dumpsters so police wouldn’t see them, but obviously, if you use behind a dumpster and the police can’t see you, no one else can see you—you’re found a day later and dead.

Bud had a really simple idea. He got together a group of addict-friends and asked them to just patrol the alleyway while they weren’t using and when they spot someone who is ODing, call an ambulance.

Because of Bud’s heroism, Canada opened a safe-injection room. Phillip Owen, a right-winged Mitt Romney-type (for an American analogy), was deselected as the conservative party candidate because his party was horrified that he encouraged this injection room to open. A more left-wing candidate who kept the room open replaced him.

I was there 10 years after the injection room opened and the results are in: overdose is down 80% and average life expectancy on the Downtown Eastside increased by 10 years. It’s mind-blowing. You don’t even get improved mortality like that at the end of a war, which is what this is.

Bud died last year and he was only in his early sixties—being a street addict in a drug war takes a toll on you. They sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside, where he had lived, homeless, and there was this enormous crowd. A lot of people in that crowd knew they were alive because of what Bud did. So what I would say to anyone tuning into this is, I know you all feel powerless sometimes, I know you all feel hopeless, we all do sometimes, but you are so much more powerful than you know. Addicts can be incredible heroes. I learned that through people like Bud Osborn, through Billie Holiday—the everyday heroism of carrying on when you’re in terrible pain, terrible suffering. Those are the things that are really worth thinking about. Read more “the fix”…


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