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Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

December 5, 2015


When the ballot initiative came up to legalize marijuana in California a few years ago, the most compelling argument I heard for its legalization was that it would be a huge hit to the drug cartels. “When a popular product is criminalized, it does not disappear. Instead, criminals start to control the supply and sale of the product,” Hari says, in this indictment of the War on Drugs. This was true for alcohol during Prohibition. It is true of drugs today. It would be true for pizza if pizza were outlawed. The value of any product is based on demand and scarcity. Making a high-demand product illegal doesn’t make it go away. It makes it more valuable. A state apparatus trying to suppress the product causes the value to skyrocket. This invariably leads to an underground, or criminal marketplace. As penalties increase, small-time, “casual” players drop out, increasing the scarcity, increasing the value, and pushing the stakes of the criminal marketplace even higher.

This paradox is common sense in economic terms. But when puritanical morality and politics enter the picture, it becomes muddled. The most effective policy may not implemented in the face of countervailing cultural winds. Our War on Drugs, as Hari elucidates, may be one of the best modern examples of this conflict. With an impressive array of research including first-hand interviews, Hari shows how our quixotic, century-long quest to eradicate drug use is not only unsuccessful compared to other drug policies worldwide, it’s actually counterproductive. Our misguided policies make the problem worse. And they have global implications.

“It’s hard to sit with a complex problem such as the human urge to get intoxicated and accept that it will always be with us and will always cause some problems (as well as some pleasures). It is much more appealing to be told a different message. That it can be ended. That all these problems can be over. If only we listen. And follow.” Since the beginning of the drug war, that is what Americans have done.

Ironically, the impetus for declaring a war on drugs came out of a very similar experiment—Prohibition. After the thirteen years of Prohibition ended in 1933, it was widely acknowledged to be a failure. Not only had it done nothing to decrease the consumption of alcohol, it had contributed to a shocking increase in crime and a boon to organized crime in particular.

The bridge from Prohibition to our modern day drug war was architected by a man named Harry Anslinger, the first head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As Prohibition came to a close, Anslinger was desperate to maintain his massive federal apparatus built to enforce it. He needed a new enemy. Illegal drugs fit the bill.

Mirroring Anslinger’s rise was Arnold Rothstein, the first gangster to benefit from the drug war. Rothstein amassed a fortune in the illegal market created by the drug war. And along with his fortune came all the activities for which organized crime is known—including murder. That was just the beginning. Rothstein was the precursor to a long tradition, including today’s drug gangs in the States and the brutal cartels of South and Central America. As we’ve seen over the years, most recently in Mexico, the real devastation kicks in when cartels compete for the market. Hari’s description of the logic of escalating violence is one of the more harrowing passages in the book:

“If you are the first to kill your rival’s relatives, including their pregnant women, you get a brief competitive advantage. People are more scared of your cartel, and they will cede more of the drug market to you. Then every cartel does it. It becomes part of standard practice. If you are the first to behead people, you get a brief competitive advantage. Then every cartel does it. If you are the first to behead people on camera and post it on Youtube, you get a brief competitive advantage. Then every cartel does it. If you are the first to mount people’s heads on pikes and display them in public, you gain a brief competitive advantage. Then every cartel does it. If you are the first to behead a person, cut off his face and sew it onto a soccer ball, you get a brief competitive advantage. And on it goes.”

This illustrates in the starkest terms the realities directly resulting from our drug policies. When the U.S. pinched off Miami as the main artery for drugs into the U.S. in the 1990s, the blood flow rerouted through Mexico, devastating towns like Juarez. It won’t stop. There’s too much money in it. Because it’s illegal.

It’s not that we condone this economy of violence. It’s much more insidious than that. We have created a system based on our puritanical values. We believe in the moral rightness of our personal stance, and based on that value system, we created natural policy extensions. But in this case, personal values make devastating public policy. And our moral righteousness does not absolve us of its pragmatic, real-world implications. Our war on drugs doesn’t destroy the enemy. It feeds the enemy. And leads to a maelstrom of corruption, violence, and terror.

Far more people are dying because of the war on drugs than are dying because of drug use.

Of course, for politicians the drug war is an easy answer. As long as drugs are illegal, being tough on crime means being tough on drugs. Nobody ever brags about being “smart on crime.” And drug legalization has traditionally been political poison. But the tide may be changing.

Remember the scandal surrounding Bill Clinton’s absurd claim in 1992 that he “didn’t inhale” the joint he was smoking? There has been a major cultural shift since then, with Obama admitting to not just smoking pot as a youth but also doing cocaine. And GOP candidate Chris Christie recently gave a heartfelt (and rational) plea for a more compassionate, common sense approach to drug abuse. Drugs clearly aren’t the political poison they used to be.

And at the heart of Christie’s rant was a key point for Hari: in almost every way, we speak of drug addiction as a disease. We treat it as such, with addiction clinics, 12-step programs, hotlines, interventions. Addicts are widely regarded as people who need help. Except in our criminal justice system. The law treats addiction as a crime. Which is one of the reasons America’s imprisonment rate is the highest in the world (which is another huge problem, with its own plethora of negative ramifications).

So what is the answer? Blanket decriminalization? The thought that drugs like crack, crystal meth or heroin would be made legal makes me uncomfortable, even in light of the logical argument for it. But just because it makes us uncomfortable doesn’t mean we should immediately dismiss it. All around the globe, real-world experiments are being conducted, and there is a lot to be learned from the drug policies of other countries.

One of the most unsettling, but surprisingly successful experiments is in Vancouver. Hari describes legal drug injection facilities there, where visitors can come in and legally inject heroin in a controlled environment. Like a hair salon, users come in, take a seat and are provided clean needles. A nurse is on hand in case anything goes wrong. The site also provides resources to help users kick the habit: counseling, medical treatment, a detox center.

It is shocking to think that a city actually supports heroin use. But it brings up what should be the primary question here: what is our objective? If our objective is to have people not use drugs, we are failing spectacularly already. Our half-century experiment shows that outlawing drug use does not curb it. What if we made our goal, instead, to be saving lives?

The logical presumption of a free heroin clinic is that it would open a floodgate and drug use would skyrocket. But that’s why experiments are valuable. They provide data to compare to our hypotheses. The results of the heroin clinics? Between 2002-2012, the average life expectancy on the downtown east side of Vancouver rose 10 years. Part of this is attributed to the turning of the neighborhood—no longer a slum, wealthier people started to move in. But part of why it turned is that drug use is off the street. And drug-related fatalities were down by 80%. “To find a rise in life expectancy this drastic, you’d have to look to the end of wars. Which is what this is.”

A Canadian politician ruined his political career for this cause. But he saved lives in doing so. It still makes me uncomfortable to think that kids, in particular, might think we condone heroin use because it’s legal, available, in a place that feels like a spa. But the results are undeniable. And it’s just one example of a radical, progressive, creative solution to the drug problem.

One can argue over the morality of drug use. But that quickly goes to the question: what makes drug use immoral? Is it that they’re illegal? Shouldn’t our laws follow collective morality and not vice-versa? And if drugs are inherently immoral, what about cigarettes? Alcohol? Caffeine? Medicine?

Drain the quagmire that is the moral argument, and the debate should be about where we draw the line. Where can we place that line to most benefit society? It should be a pragmatic debate, not one based on an arbitrary morality or political pressure. It should be about the evidence resulting from 100 years of experiments around the world, different societies testing different systems for dealing with drugs. We have real information, both anecdotal and quantitative. And the clear takeaway from this book is that our current policy in the U.S., our brute force “war on drugs,” is a disaster. It is worse than ineffectual—it is counterproductive. It’s time to try something else.

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