‘Addiction Is an Adaptation to Your Environment’: An Interview With Johann Hari

‘Addiction Is an Adaptation to Your Environment’: An Interview With Johann Hari

‘Addiction Is an Adaptation to Your Environment’: An Interview With Johann Hari

Addiction, according to Johann Hari, is less about drugs and more about human connection.


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.

They’re transferred from pharmacies to armed, criminal gangs who suddenly have to be terrifying; they start having fights; suddenly the price goes massively up so addicts are driven into everything from prostitution to property crime. You suddenly see this huge outbreak of all sorts of crime that wasn’t there when they were legal.

LF: Now, Dr. Williams was up against quite an opponent, that’s this Harry Anslinger guy. Can you tell us, what can you tell us about him, and why was he so obsessed with Billie Holiday?

JH: Harry Anslinger I think is the most influential person who almost no one’s ever heard of. He’s the inventor of the modern War on Drugs. He takes over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending; so he’s got this huge department with basically nothing to do, and he wants to find a purpose, and he’s always been driven all his life by two really strong hatreds: One is of addicts, and the other is of African Americans.

He was regarded as a racist in the 1930s by racists, to give a sense of how extreme he was, and he really became fixated on Billie Holiday, as I learned from his archives and from interviewing Billie Holiday’s surviving friends; and, you know, 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage and sings “Strange Fruit,” a song against lynching, and that night the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tells her to stop, and she refuses. Billie Holiday was a tough person. She had promised herself, when she was growing up in the slums of Baltimore, she would never bow her head to any white man; and she told them to basically go screw themselves, and that’s when the stalking of her began.

He first of all sends this guy called Jimmy Fletcher to kind of stalk her, and the first agent that he sends falls in love with her because she was so amazing. He sends her to prison; she said at the trial, you know, it was called “the United States versus Billie Holiday,” and that’s how it felt. She gets out, she can’t perform anywhere because you needed a license to perform, and you know the thing she loved is taken away from her, but still Anslinger is not finished with her.

When she collapses in her early 40s, she’s taken to a hospital here in New York; the hospital refuses to take her because she’s an addict. They take her to another hospital; she says to a friend they’re going to kill me in there, don’t let them, they’re going to kill me.

They handcuff her to the bed; they take away… she’s diagnosed with liver cancer; the agents handcuff her to the bed; they don’t let her friends in to see her. I interviewed the last surviving person to be in that room, and what they did to her was horrific. One of her friends… you know, she’s actually given methadone, one of her friends manages to insist on it; she gets better; 10 days later they cut the methadone off and she died; but here’s the thing about Billie Holiday, and this really helped me to think about the addicts in my life: Billie Holiday never stopped singing that song.

No matter what they did to her, she would go anywhere they’d have her, and she would sing it; and one of the things that really helped me was to realize addicts can be heroes. There’s the everyday heroism of carrying on when you’re in terrible pain, but there’s also the heroism that I saw of Billy Holiday and a lot of other people, of, you know, doing an amazing thing. All over the world, while we’re talking, people are listening to Billie Holiday and feeling stronger.

LF: Yet Mr. Anslinger’s influence is still felt. Fast forward to today, and you go to Arizona, to the home territory of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s known for his roundups of people without legal immigration documents, and his treatment of criminals. You report of a female chain gang, working there in the desert, and on a woman Marsha Powell, who is literally cooked in a cage, they say; and you hear this from somebody and you say, “Huh, what do you mean?”

JH: Joe Arpaio was a personal disciple of Harry Anslinger. When I mentioned Anslinger, his face lit up, and he said you got a great guy here who remembers Harry Anslinger.

LF: He’s worked for him, right?

JH: Yes, he worked for him; he was promoted by Anslinger. Anslinger loved him. It was really, it was one of the hardest… I mean, I went to a lot of dark places for the book; this was one of the hardest. Going out with these women on this chain gang, who were forced to wear T-shirts saying “I Was a Drug Addict”; forced to chant that the guards will tase them if they get out of line.

One of the most shocking cases—and this was not in a prison controlled by Arpaio, it’s in another place in Arizona—is a woman called Marcia Powell, who is a chronic meth addict; and when I started researching this, not very much was known about her, except that she was constantly in that prison either for using meth or for prostituting herself to get meth; and one morning she woke up in Perryville Prison in 2009, and said she was suicidal; and the doctor didn’t believe her, so they took her out and they put her in a holding cage, it’s just literally a cage in the desert, and they left her there; and she cried, and she begged for water, and she messed herself, and they left her.

In the end, she collapsed and they called an ambulance. She had been cooked. No one was ever criminally punished for doing that; and I feel that tells you something of that thing that we saw in Billie Holiday’s life—that addicts’ lives were regarded as worthless. Their death was seen as a good thing. That continues right to the present day.

I then went and tracked down the father of Marcia Powell’s kids to get the story of her life, and it was really heartbreaking, the like of Billie Holiday. She had been a child prostitute, she was trying to stun her grief with these drugs, and the idea that that was the way to treat her is pretty…

LF: That goes back to some of the assumptions that we make about addiction and drug use, that are, according to your research, wrong. It’s not just your research, but the United Nations statistics on dependency were kind of fascinating.

JH: Well, there’s two different bits of that; they’re both fascinating. One is—and this surprised me because it wasn’t my family’s experience—90 percent of all drug use, according to the UNODC, the main Drug War body in the world, is non-problematic. That’s true even for quite extreme drugs, the vast majority of people who use them don’t develop any kind of problem with them.

LF: They’re functioning, holding down jobs…

JH: Doesn’t cause any problem. If I said to you “picture an alcohol drinker,” you’d picture a bar where there’s loads of people; there may be an alcoholic in the corner and his life will be tragic, and he deserves our love and support, but that doesn’t dominate the picture.

Perhaps the most shocking thing that I discovered for the book, and the thing that really blew my mind, was that addiction is not at all what we think it is. If you had said to me, four years ago, what causes heroin addiction? I would have looked at you like you were a little bit stupid, and I would have said well, heroin causes heroin addiction. The first thing that alerted me to the fact that may not be right was something that one of your former guests, Gabor Maté, said to me.

He said, look, if you step out into the street and you’re hit by a car and you break your hip, you’ll be taken to a hospital, you’ll be given diamorphine, right? Diamorphine is heroin. It’s extremely good heroin, it’s much better than the heroin you’d score on the streets, because it’s medically pure. You’ll be given it… you can be given it for quite a long time, right? If what we think about addiction is true, that if we use the drug for 20 days there are chemical hooks in the drug and then our body will physically need the drug, right?—if that was true and that’s what addiction is, if that was true, those people would leave the hospital and try to score on the streets.

You will have noticed that your grandmother didn’t become a junkie after her hip operation, that that virtually never happens; and I didn’t know what to do with this information when I first learned it, but then I went and interviewed an incredible man, called Professor Bruce Alexander, who did an experiment that really I think everyone needs to know about.

The old idea of addiction, Bruce explained to me, comes from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century; really easy, your viewers could do them if they’re feeling a little bit sadistic. You get a rat, and you put it in a cage, all on its own; and it should have two water bottles: one is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water, and almost always kill itself quite quickly. You might remember there was a famous advert in the ’80s, a Partnership for a Drug-Free America advert, showing that and saying, you know, it will happen to you; and Bruce comes along in the ’70s, and says well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage, it’s got nothing to do, let’s try this differently; so Bruce build Rat Park.

Rat Park is heaven for rats, right? Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got it in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food; it’s got colored balls; it’s got lots of friends; it can have loads of sex; anything a rat wants is there at Rat Park, and they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got both the normal water and the drugged water, but here’s the fascinating thing: In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly ever use it; they never overdose; and they don’t use it in any way that looks like addiction or compulsion.

What Bruce says, and there’s human examples that I can get to, if you’d like; but what Bruce says is this shows us that both the left-wing and the right-wing theories of addiction are wrong. The right-wing theory is: You’re a hedonist, you party too hard, you’re morally flawed, and that’s how you become an addict. The left-wing theory is: You’re kind of hijacked, your brain is taken over. Bruce says: It’s not your morality, it’s not your brain, it’s your cage. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment, and we can see that in all sorts of human ways, as well, I can talk about if you like.

LF: Human and also nonhuman; in the book you talk about a lot of other science experiments, including observation of what you mentioned, the mongoose, water buffalo in Vietnam, that was fascinating.

JH: Vietnam obviously has naturally grown opium plants, and buffalo don’t eat them; they just don’t like them, right? But during the war when there’s all this bombing going on, the buffalo started to eat the opiate-base pods to tranquilize themselves, and that’s really fascinating, because if you think about Vietnam, during the Vietnam War, 20 percent of American troops were using heroin regularly, right? So if you look at the news stories from the time, there’s this enormous panic thinking my God, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of junkies back on the streets of the United States, because they believed the old theory of addiction.

In fact, all the evidence is the vast majority come home and just stop using, because if you’re taken out of the hellish, pestilential jungle where you don’t want to be and you could be killed at any moment, and you go back to your nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your family and your job, it’s the equivalent of being taken out of the first cage and into the second.

LF: If, as you say and Gabor Maté and others argue, addiction is an adaptation to a really troubled society, is it even responsible to decriminalize without dealing with that deeper trouble?

JH: Oh, I think you do need to deal with it; and I think the best way to talk about this is not in an abstract way, but to look at Portugal; so I spent time in Portugal, and 15 years ago Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, it was crazy, and they decided to start up a scientific panel that would figure our what would genuinely work; and the scientific panel came back and said decriminalize everything, from cannabis to crack, but, and this is the crucial second point that speaks exactly to what you’re saying, take all the money we were spending on arresting drug users, imprisoning drug users, all of that, and spend it all on reconnecting addicts with society.

João Goulão, the amazing doctor who led this, talks about how he wanted every addict in Portugal to wake up with something to do every day. Why are we not drunk now? We could be drinking vodka now, right? We’re not drunk because we’ve got stuff to do, you know? And so one of the most effective things, part of it was residential rehab and psychological support, which are hugely valuable; but the most important element of what they did in Portugal was subsidize jobs, subsidized housing. If you used to be a mechanic and you developed a drug problem, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say employ this guy for a year and we’ll pay half his wages; and the results have been extraordinary.

You know, it’s been nearly 15 years; injecting drug use has fallen by 50 percent, five-zero percent. Every study shows addiction is down. One of the most moving interviews I did was with the guy who led the opposition to this move, a guy called João Figueira, who’s the top drug cop in Portugal, and he said the exact words when what he said: Everything I said would happen didn’t happen, and everything the other side said would happen did; and he talked about how he really regretted that he’d spent 20 years prior to this arresting and harassing drug users, and he hoped the whole world would follow the example; so I think you’re absolutely right, you need to deal.

There’s this one layer, which is reconnecting addicts with society. There’s a much bigger social change that needs to happen, but that’s stuff that you and I believe needs to happen anyway. I mean we… something has gone badly wrong in our culture. We’ve create a culture where really large numbers of the people around us can’t bear to be present in their lives. They need to medicate themselves to get through the day. Now, that’s an indictment of the whole consumerist world that we have built, and there’s all sorts of reasons we need to deal with that.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, which is an amazing book, explains why we need to deal with it in order to prevent the climate unraveling. This is another reason why we need to deal with it.

LF: I want to talk more about that, but before I do, you mentioned in passing that his exact words are in the book, and they really are; I mean this is one of the most well-footnoted books, there’s 60 pages of notes, you can go and listen to the archives; and we know why. People who followed your career know why: that there were allegations of plagiarism, you apologized, you had to leave your position at The Independent. Some people have called this book career rehab. Is that fair?

JH: I deliberately didn’t think in those terms; I just tried to write the best book that I could write. What I did that was terribly wrong was that sometimes when I interviewed people I took things they had written elsewhere or said elsewhere, and acted like they’d been said directly to me. In order to show people that that hasn’t happened in this book, the audio is available. You can hear the people saying these things to me.

That’s a cool thing, anyway, because there are so many amazing people that I interviewed, and I think to be able to hear their voices is really a valuable thing. But, yeah, I deliberately didn’t think in those terms.

LF: Did that experience give you sympathy for those who were just not given a chance to move on, and not given a second chance?

JH: I deliberately didn’t think about it in relation to myself. I mean, I was invested in this issue from long before that happened.

LF: You do say you had a dependency issue yourself.

JH: Yeah, I used a lot of this drug called Provigil, which is a drug, a narcolepsy drug; I’m not narcoleptic, you now notice, and I had read that it makes you basically smarter and you can work harder and that kind of thing; and I used that for a couple of years. I would advise people not to do it, but again I think you don’t want to use these things if you’re fully connected, and I certainly don’t want to use them now.

LF: Talk about fear. I thought it was very poignant, and it goes back to what you were saying about the society that we live in. You make the point that our vilification and criminalization of people who use drugs, our fear of addiction, is related to our fear of addiction; is related to our fear of addiction to products, to purchasing.

Gabor Maté talks about his CD-purchasing addiction. Talk about that a little bit; and if that’s the case, how do we break that fear?

JH: Well, we live in a culture where everything is geared towards consumption. You are here to consume things, right? From a very young… watch a child looking at advertising, and I think of addiction as like a subset of that. It’s thinking that if you consume something and take it inside you, you will be okay. You know, it’s a misfiring of consumer capitalism and the logic of consumer capitalism; and I think you’re totally right, that this is a very problematic culture, and it really struck me, going to the places that have moved beyond the Drug War.

The ones that have been really effective, like Switzerland and Portugal, are the ones that have really learned that. For example in Switzerland they prescribe heroin to chronic heroin addicts, but that’s in a sense like a holding pattern while you help them to rebuild their life so they can bear to be in reality; and I think that’s really crucial.

It’s a really interesting question: Why does the Drug War begin when it does? It’s partly the race panic that we talked about, Billie Holiday; it’s also partly the social factors that cause addiction are starting to massively rise. When do you see addiction outbreaks happening? You know, the 18th century, huge lumps of people in Britain are driven off out of the countryside into these disgusting slums, and you get the gin craze. Gin is regarded as the crack of its time.

Why does the meth craze happen? The meth craze comes because you have the collapse of rural America. Why does the crack epidemic happen just after the collapse of industrial America and all those kind of jobs? Where you have outbreaks of mass meaninglessness and loss of purpose, you will see big rises in addiction, and you’ll then see panics about that.

LF: To go back 100 years again, one of the most poignant moments this book mentions is that there was what you call a Jazz solidarity, that for the most part the jazz world stood by their own; they didn’t allow the Billie Holiday targeting to happen to very many people.

JH: Yes, it is really moving. I actually saw an example of this in Vancouver, where there was an incredible uprising of drug addicts. You know, in the year 2000, there was a homeless street addict, called Bud Osborn, who was watching his friends die all around him. People were using in dumpsters, behind dumpsters, to stop the police seeing them. But of course if the police can’t see you, if you start to OD, no one else can; and Bud thought I have to do something about this, I can’t just watch all these people die. He did a very simple thing, first of all: He arranged just for the addicts to patrol the alleyways. If they could spot someone ODing, they could call an ambulance. That really empowered them, because the overdose rate massively fell.

They started stalking the mayor of Vancouver everywhere, Philip Owen, a kind of right-wing, Mitt Romney type, demanding he open an injecting room. They carried a coffin with them saying, Who will die next, Philip Owen? And after two years of stalking, to Philip Owen’s eternal credit, he went and met a load of addicts, was completely blown away, and did indeed open the first injecting room in North America. You know, 10 years on, average life expectancy is up 10 years in that neighborhood, overdose is down by 80 percent.

Bud died last year, and when they sealed off the streets of the downtown east side, where he had lived homeless, and had this incredible memorial service, there were huge numbers of people there who knew they were alive because of the uprising that he began. And I would say to you this: I know it’s very easy when I think about this subject to feel powerless, and this is such a big thing, the War on Drugs, but you are so much more powerful than you know. A homeless street addict started a revolution in Vancouver, that has transformed Canadian law and practice. There is so much that we can do to end this and save people’s lives.

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