Why were drugs banned 100 years ago? Why do we continue banning them? And what really causes drug addiction and drug use? After leaving daily journalism, former newspaper columnist Johann Hari set out to find the answers to at least some of those questions; the results are in his first book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. The narrative takes readers to half a dozen countries and US states experimenting with alternatives to criminalization, and introduces us to a world of people, none less fascinating than the man who kicked off Prohibition for the FBI, Harry Anslinger, and his number-one target, jazz great Billie Holiday.
Hari started writing for The Independent in England at the age of 23; since then he’s written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Slate, The New Republic, and The Nation, among others. This interview has been adapted from The Laura Flanders Show. —Laura Flanders
Laura Flanders: Why the War On Drugs? You’d written about a lot of things, but I hadn’t noticed that was your number-one focus when you were doing daily writing.
Johann Hari: I realized four years ago that we were coming up to a hundred years since drugs were first banned, and I had a quite personal reason for wanting to think about this. We had addiction in my family, quite bad drug addiction. One of my earliest memories was of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to, and as I got older realizing why; and I guess I started to think that there were just loads of really basic questions about this subject that I didn’t know the answer to.
My teachers had never told me; the culture had never told me; our governments never told me; and the more I looked into it, going on this big, long journey where I met a crazy range of people, from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn to a scientist who spends his time feeding hallucinogens to mongooses to see what will happen, to the only country that’s ever decriminalized all drugs, from cannabis to crack, with incredible results; and I guess what really struck me is almost everything we think we know about the subject is wrong.
Drugs aren’t what we think they are; the Drug War isn’t what we think it is; addiction isn’t what we think it is; and the alternatives aren’t what we’ve been told they are.
LF: Let’s start with going back 100 years; I was sort of entranced to read your descriptions of Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, and the situation with respect to drugs before Prohibition.
JH: It’s fascinating. Drugs were legal in the United States, in Britain, everywhere in the world. If you wanted to buy opiates, you go to a local store, the equivalent to CVS; it was mostly sold in the form of something called Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was a kind of cough mixture. You could buy cocaine-based teas; you could buy cocaine-based drinks; and it’s important to understand there were some problems related to that. There was of course some addiction just like we have addiction to alcohol; it was not that big a deal. The vast majority of addicts had jobs; they were no more likely to be poor than anyone else; and really what you see, I tell it through the story of this extraordinary doctor in California at the birth of the Drug War called Henry Smith Williams, who really saw that as soon as drugs were banned all sorts of problems started to metastasize.