Johann Hari: The Falsehoods of Addiction and The War on Drugs

March 23, 2015

Billions of dollars are funneled into federal drug programs to keep our children away from drugs and our cities safe from crime and economic turmoil. Our guest this week, journalist and author Johann Hari, has spent the last several years traveling and researching the war on drugs for his new book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, to find out if federal programs are as effective and righteous as we are often led to believe.

Hari talks to host Josh Zepps about how he discovered the troubling beginnings of drug war riddled with corruption and ulterior motives, and argues that everything we thought we understood about drug addiction appears to be wrong.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 20 30, 2015. I’m Nora Hurley, the producer point of inquiry, and just a quick reminder that the reason for change conference is happening at CFI is Buffalo, New York location, June 11th through June 15th, where you can see a bunch of awesome speakers like Richard Dawkins, Rebecca Goldstein and Point of inquiries, very own Josh Zepps and Zee Byre Stein. So make sure you go to reason for change dot or to register. You’re not gonna wanna miss it. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff US Live. And this is the podcast of a center for inquiry. Johann Hari is a writer and journalist who was a wildly popular columnist for The Independent in Britain before becoming embroiled in a plagiarism controversy. His return to high profile journalism is a bombshell of a book Chasing the Scream, the first and last days of the War on Drugs. It’s a fascinating look at the history and the impact of drug prohibition. Johan, thanks for being on point of inquiry. I’m really excited. 

I’ve learned so much for the things putit inquiry over the years, so I’m really chuffed to be with it. 

Good. I love interviewing fans. All right. Just briefly, before we get to the psychology of addiction, I just wanna start with some history, because what strikes me when I’m I’m reading a book is the idea that addictive, mind altering substances should be controlled. It’s just so deeply woven into the thinking of modern politics and modern culture that it’s almost hard to imagine that it might never have happened. But, of course, things could have gone another way. Can you tell us how the war on drugs began? 

It really struck me this four years ago when I started working on this book. I had a quite personal reason to want to look into it. We had a love addiction in my family and in people close to me. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. And as I got older, realizing why I thought I was a pretty well informed person about this subject, partly for that reason, partly because I’ve written about it over the years. And I suddenly realized that we were coming up to 100 years since drugs were banned. And there were loads of really basic questions that I just didn’t know the answer to. Like, why were drugs banned in the first place? Why did we go to war against drug users one hundred years ago? Why do we continue when so many people think it doesn’t work? What are the alternatives like in practice and what really causes drug use and drug addiction? I’ve read about the subject. I realize that just so often it’s discussed. It’s really abstract way, as if we’re Ruler of philosophy seminar and it’s all a kind of grand abstract question. I didn’t want to think of it in those terms. I wanted to find out how it really affected real people’s lives. So I ended up going on this quite long journey across nine countries, thirty thousand miles, and really just sitting with lots of people whose lives have been changed one way or another. And it was interesting to see in relation to the question you’re asking, how the things that were there right at the birth of the drug war totally at play now. In a way, it’s not a kind of although it would be fascinating to look at the history in and of itself. It’s a history that’s totally still alive. If you’d said to me, why were drugs banned, I would have assumed that they were banned then for the reasons that if you stopped an average person on the street, they would give. Now, you know, you don’t want kids to use drugs. You don’t want people to become addicted. What’s fascinating looking all the original stuff in the time is that barely comes up. They were thinking about a whole other set of things, and the main things they were thinking about was it was really a race panic. There was a really strong belief that African-Americans and Chinese Americans were forgetting that place, taking drugs and attacking white people in the main way. I tell that story in the book is the story of how Billie Holiday, the great jazz singer, was stalked and killed by the man who launched the war on drugs, Harry Anslinger. And which story, I think that tells you so much about the birth of the drug war. Yeah, tell it. Yeah. 1939, Billie Holiday stands on stage not very far from where you are now, actually. And she sings the song Strange Fruit, which her listeners will know is a song against lynching. It was unbelievably shocking to have an African-American woman buried on the side hotel where she wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door. She went through the service elevator, standing up and singing this song. And that night she gets a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to stop singing this song. The Federal Bureau was run by a man called Harry Anslinger. He’s probably the most influential person and no one’s ever heard of. He’s the inventor of the Motin drug war. He took over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition is ending. And he wanted to find a purpose and reason for his department. And he was really driven by two intense hatreds, a really intense hatred of addicts and a really intense hatred of African-Americans. And to him, Billie Holiday was like the symbol of everything that was going wrong in America. He thought jazz was like a kind of disorder and chaos. And then to have an African-American women stand up in front of a white audience and singing against white supremacy was just heinous to him. Billie Holiday, when she gets this threat, basically, you know, she had grown up in Baltimore when it was a segregated city and she wasn’t allowed in a lot of shops because she was African-American. And she had promised herself as a little girl that she was never going about her head to any white man. So she effectively said, screw you, I’m an American citizen. I’ll sing my song. And that’s when this really dark story begins. He sends an agent to stalk. I hated employing African-Americans, but you couldn’t really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday. The guy stalks that two years. Actually, Billie Holiday was so amazing that this agent, Jimmy Fletcher, fell in love with her his whole life. He felt ashamed of what he did. She’s busted. She’s put on trial. She said the trial was called the United States versus Billie Holiday, and that’s how it felt. She sent prison. But the darkest bit is what happens when she gets out. You needed a license to perform in most places, anywhere where alcohol was served. And they had it denied to her so she could. Singhji, the thing that she loved, was taken away from her. This is what we do to addicts all over the world today. We make it very hard. Fans ever work again. And she relapses into her addiction when she collapses in her early 40s in New York. She’s taken to hospital at first hospital, won’t even take her because she was an addict. Second hospital, she says to one of their friends, that can kill me in there. Don’t let them. They’re going to kill me. She thought the narcotics agents weren’t finished with her. She was right. She was diagnosed with liver cancer. Answering as men arrest her on her deathbed. They don’t let any of her friends in to see her. They handcuffed her to the bed. They take away her candies, her record player. One of her friends manages to insist that she’s given methadone because she went into withdrawal. She starts to recover a bit. They call off the methadone and she died. One of her friends told the BBC that she looked like she had been violently wrenched from life. And I think that story about Billie Holiday and the birth of the drug war tells us a lot. I also think it helped me thinking about the addicts in my life, to think about the heroism of Billie Holiday. One of her friends, Annie Ross, who’s also a great jazz singer, told me Billie Holiday wasn’t weak. Billie Holiday was as strong as she could be. And to think about the courage of the fact that she always found somewhere to sing that song, no matter what they did to her and to realize that addicts can be heroic. That’s the heroism of just surviving when you’re in terrible pain. But also, while we’re speaking all over the world, people are listening to the holiday and they’re feeling stronger. And that’s an incredible achievement. 

What drugs was she using that they were trying to crack down on? 

What’s very interesting, at the same time, Harry Anslinger finds out that Billie Holiday and Judy Garland are using heroin. We know way to Billie Holiday with a Judy Garland. He goes to see her. He tells us she’s going to be fine, that she should take longer vacations, and he reassures the studio that she’ll be all right. You really see the difference in the fact that one of them is African-American and one of them was white? I mean, Anslinger. This is not just like he wasn’t just regarded as a racist by our standards. He was regarded at the time as an extreme racist. I mean, his own sentences that he should have to resign because he used the N-word so often in official police memos and saying it was really driven by a very deep and profound hatred of African-Americans. 

Right. So we’ve got this this racist fear mongering going on. But there was still that Federal Bureau of Narcotics. How did that even come to be? It can’t all be racism, right? There must have been some. I mean, when we look at, for example, prohibition of alcohol, it’s a little over a hundred years ago now that the first drug control legislation in the world was passed you in the United States, the Houssam Narcotics Tax Act. How did that come to be and what kind of cultural fame or main was it feeding into it? 

It was overwhelmingly about race, rather like alcohol prohibition. If you think that alcohol was there in the United States from the very beginning on the Mayflower, they brought over a load of wine and whiskey. The when does alcohol get banned is when you have the way with Italian and Irish immigration and they’re associated with heavy drinking in the public consciousness. There was a huge racial element to alcohol prohibition. And it really struck me. I didn’t know this until I mean, I knew vaguely because I’d read Michelle Alexander’s excellent new Jim Crow. But it was really striking when you read the reports from the time the debates, from the time really racist, the overwhelmingly dominant theme. You know, one of the main people commenting on it, for example, says the cocaine N-word sure is hard to kill. There’s this very deep belief that ethnic minorities are using drugs and going mad. It’s very deep in the origins of this to a really bizarre degree, actually, because it seems so, so odd. 

Now, when does this modern era of drug prohibition begin the war on drugs? 

Well, I would say it begins with Anslinger. This would be controversial in that some people in the field would not agree with the first person to use the phrase warfare against drugs is Harry Anslinger back in the 30s. And I think although it’s, of course, massively stepped up by Nixon, pretty much everything is put in place by Anslinger. Of course, drawing on the trends, I’d not believe in the great man theory of history. He’s a genius at conducting people’s fears. He was Bill, writing a much wider cultural wave. Of course, if you look at, for example, marijuana prohibition, it’s very interesting how he authors’ the birth of that when he takes over the bureau. He said that marijuana is not particularly dangerous. He wasn’t worried about it. It didn’t concern him. And then because cocaine and heroin were relatively minority tastes that time, you can’t really build a big department on just opposing them. He suddenly announces that marijuana is literally the worst drug in the world, worse than heroin. And he latches on one particular case of a boy called Victor Licata in Florida, who was a boy in his early 20s who hacked his family to death with an ax. And he was Latino. And Anslinger announces with the help of Hearst media, who were the kind of Fox News that that day that this boy had used marijuana. And this is what will happen if you use marijuana. You will have your family to death with an ax. I’m really not comically joking. This is what he said at. Years later, someone goes back and looks at the psychiatric files with it to La Cosa. There’s not even evidence he’d used marijuana. He had congenital insanity in his family. His family had actually been told to institutionalize him two years before. And they flatly. Fuzed to the main planks of what we would recognize as the drug war are really in place from the mid 1930s onwards. 

So then in the 60s, you get the hippie movement, you get a rise of new types of drugs. 

We see the onset of hallucinogens and later things like ecstasy and so on. Do you think there was a moment at which we could have peddled this back? We could have thought, oh, actually, there are all kinds of psychological experiments that we can do on ourselves in terms of experiencing different altered mental states. And maybe that could be considered a form of recreation. Or do you think it was inevitable that that would then get pile into this kind of preset conception about how evil and dangerous drugs are? 

Oh, it’s nothing I knew very little about before I started doing the research. The introduction of the drug war is massively contested in the United States. It does not come in easily. And it’s for enjoying the moment when things could have gone differently, I think is significantly before the period you’re talking about when drugs the first ban. It’s hugely contested, particularly by doctors. Financially, I tell the story of an incredible man called Henry Smith Williams, who was a doctor in California. He was a doctor who treated drug addicts when drugs were legal and then obviously after drugs were banned. And he’s a fascinating person. He wrote a book called Drug Addicts The Human Beings that basically prophesies the entire drug war. He saw what happened prior to drugs were being banned. Addicts. Addiction, of course, existed an addiction. It was a draining and debilitating condition in the same way that being an alcoholic is today. But the vast majority of addicts and again, there was official government study that showed this, the vast majority of addicts had jobs. They were no more likely to be poor or criminal than anyone else. They would go to the local pharmacy and they’d buy that drug and they would have debilitated life of an addict. Then he saw that when drugs were banned, suddenly a whole series of things happened that did not exist before. The first is the drug trade doesn’t cease to exist. It simply transferred from doctors and pharmacists like him to armed criminal gangs. Those armed criminal gangs do all sorts of things. They massively contaminate products that commit huge amounts of violence. Could they’re risking their liberty to sell the drugs? They massively jack up the price, literally. I think the figure is like a thousand percent. So suddenly these addicts who previously had had jobs and fairly normal lives to meet this grossly inflated price turned to a second crime wave. See, the first crime wave is obviously transferred to organized crime. The second wave is the addicts then themselves. Huge numbers of women become prostitutes. Huge numbers of men turn to property crime or pimping. And you suddenly see this whole range of things that never existed before. And it was very clearly understood by people that these things were the result of drug prohibition. Seventeen 17000 doctors in the United States insisted on continuing to prescribe drugs to addicts and were kind of swept up and rounded up by Anslinger. This was a huge movement of people who fought back. You know, the mayor of Los Angeles stands in front of a heroin prescribing clinic and says, you will not shut this down. This does a good job for the people of Los Angeles. I’m paraphrasing that that sentiment expressed this was a big deal. The drug war was introduced against a very contested backdrop. And one can well imagine an alternative history of the 20th century where drugs continue to be controlled by the people who controlled them at the start of the 20th century. Doctors and pharmacists. And we would have had a very different, very different story of the last hundred years. 

How essential is the United States in the development of the global war on drugs? And is it absolutely purely the sole source of the war on drugs? What were other countries doing at the time? What were they grappling with? 

It’s not the sole source, but it’s very interesting to go and look at this history. That’s a very good diplomatic historian, David Billy Taylor. He’s done a lot of work on this. What happens is Anslinger uses first the League of Nations, but much more the UN after the Second World War, when the U.S. is obviously completely dominant. Basically, I’ll give you an example. Mexico. Mexico had an extremely good drug policy. They had a doctor in the 30s. They had a doctor who ran a rehab clinic. He was in charge of drug policy. He said we shouldn’t ban cannabis because it’s not harmful. And with other drugs, we should treat the addicts and clinics and hospitals could be writing today. Sounds incredibly contemporary. Anslinger orders that that man be fired. And when the Mexicans refuse. What happens is they cut off the supply of legal opiates to Mexico for painkillers to punish the Mexicans. And, of course, people start just dying in absolute agony in Mexican hospitals. They just have to give in. And there’s a similar process that happens with virtually every country that holds out against the American imposed drug war. Now, of course, there are some countries that enthusiastically want to introduce it because they have minority groups they want to crack down on or for various internal domestic reasons. But there’s a huge amount of pressure. There’s a great quote when one person argues back with him at the U.N., he says, I think this is a verbatim quote. I’ve made up my mind. Don’t try to confuse me with the facts, which I think like the likely obituary for the entire. So there are countries that how that Thailand held out for a long time. Britain actually held out for a long time. But basically, eventually, the diplomatic part combination of things like what happened to Mexico and things like. Just threatening to cut off aid. And this continues right up to the present day. 

So let’s talk about addiction, the science of addiction. What is it? 

If you’d said to me four years ago, what causes, say, heroin addiction? I would have looked to you like you were a little bit simple minded and I would have said, well, heroin causes heroin addiction. There’s a story we’ve been told for 100 years about addiction. It’s become like how kind of common sense. It seems obvious to us. We think that if and I certainly feel this. We think that if you, me and the next 20 people who walked past your studio and asked a place if we all used heroin together for 20 days. By day 21, we would all be heroin addicts. Because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our body would physically need at the end of it. The first thing that alerted me to the fact there was something wrong with that story is when it’s explained to me by Fantastic Manko Gabble Martta, a doctor in Vancouver, that after this interview, if we step out onto the street and we’re hit by a car and we break, perhaps we’ll be taken to hospital. It’s very likely we’ll be given diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin is medically pure heroin. Much about her in the nude score on the streets, which has much lower purity. You’ll be given that diamorphine for quite a long period of time. And if what we think about addiction is right. Well, what should happen to those people? They should become addicted. They should be. The chemical hooks should get them as surely as they get anyone else. And they should leave hospital as addicts are extensive studies of this that virtually never happens. Obviously, your grandmother was not turned into a junkie by her hip operation. When I learned by seems so weird that I just didn’t know what to do with that until I went and interviewed another extraordinary man who Bruce Alexander is a professor in Vancouver. Very distinguished professor. He explained to me the idea of addiction that we have. The kind of popular idea that we will have in our heads comes from a series of experiments, from other things as well, partly from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They’re really simple experiments. Anyone listening to this can do them themselves at home if they’re sitting a little bit sadistic. You get a rat and you put it in a cage and you give it to water bottles. One is just water and one is water laced with heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself quite rapidly. People might remember the Partnership for Drug Free America adverts in the 80s, a bill around this experiment. It says something like, it will happen to you. So there you go. That’s our theory of addiction in the 70s. Bruce comes along and he says, well, hang on a minute. We’re paying the rent in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let’s do this differently. So Bruce built Rat Park. Rat Park is like heaven for rats. It’s a cage with everything they could possibly want it. It’s got cheese and collard balls and tunnels and loads of friends. The rat can have lots of sex, whatever a rat. About time once it’s got there and it’s got both the water bottles, the normal water and the drugged water. And of course, all the rats try both. They don’t know what’s in them. Here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, the rats don’t like the drug water. They use very little of it. None of them ever use it compulsively. None of them ever overdose. Now, there’s a really important human example of this. I give you a minute. What Berry says is this shows us that both the right wing and left wing theories of addiction are wrong. The right wing theory is that it’s a moral failing. You’re a hedonist. You party too hard. You know, that’s you’re indulging yourself. And the left wing theory is you get kind of accidentally hooked. You get taken over. And so Brace says it’s not your morality. It’s not your brain. 

It’s your cage. Addiction is to a much larger, not entirely, but to a much larger degree than we’ve appreciates it up to now. An adaptation to your environment and the human example that was happening at the same time, which illustrates this quite well, is the Vietnam War in Vietnam. 20 percent of American troops were using heroin regularly. And if you read the reports from the time, there’s a real panic because they think, my God, when these people come home, we can have hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets of the United States. Again, this was studied. People soldiers were followed and they monitor when they came in. And what happened? The vast majority, 95 percent just stopped. They didn’t go to rehab. They didn’t go through a terrible period of withdrawal. They just stopped. Because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle where you don’t want to be and could die at any moment and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family, it’s the equivalent of being taken out of that first cage and into the second cage. And it tells us something really fundamental about addiction that really helped me to understand people in my life and to understand this. What if you think about it, right? I’ve got here a bottle of mineral water. You’ve probably got a drink in front of you, right? Forget the drug lords for a second. You and me, we could be drinking vodka now, right? We could both be drunk. We could be drunk for weeks and weeks and weeks. We could be drunk for the rest of our lives if we are money held out. Right. We know. The reason we know is because we got something we want to be present for in our lives. We’ve got jobs we love. We’ve got people we love. We’ve got things we want to do. Exactly the same thing as driver of compulsive use of a lot of things. If you don’t want to be. Present in your life. If you can’t be different, I thing is, Peter, in an academic in the Netherlands, talks about we shouldn’t use the phrase addiction, we should use the phrase bonding. Human beings have an innate need to bond. And when we’re psychologically healthy, we’ll bond with each other. When we can’t do that because we’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down or cut off, we will bond with something that gives us a sense of pleasure or relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be crack, but it will be something because human beings need to bond. And I think that’s an interesting and helpful way reframing this discussion. 

Right. So I take your point that we can’t just say that it’s a chemical hook that we’re helpless against. On the other hand, there are people who do go into hospital and do are on methadone in hospital and get out and they’re prescribed oxycodone or another similar drug and they take that and it feels nice. I’ve done that drug. It feels wonderful, makes you feel happy and lightheaded and or woman cozy. And then they need a bit more of it, a bit more of it to get that same feeling. 

Just a few weeks ago, the co executive producer of Parks and Recreation, who was a sometime friend of a friend of mine, died of a heroin overdose as a result of having abused oxycodone. 

You’re not denying that there is a mental state that is achieved through some of these drugs that is highly desirable and that makes it just so easy to get that feeling of bonding and belonging that you can bypass all of the more difficult ways. 

I want to come back to the point about oxycodone, because you’ve read a really important point. But we can actually it’s absolutely right to say that there is a chemical component to addiction. It would be absurd to say otherwise. And we can, in fact, measure this scientifically, universally regarded among scientists as one of the most chemically compelling drugs is nicotine. You can measure that by the degree to which people feel withdrawal when they’re deprived of it after a period of habitual use. And we’ve isolated the part of tobacco smoking that is the chemical and it’s nicotine. Right. Again, none of this is controversial. When nicotine patches were introduced, discovered in the early 1990s, first invented in the early 1990s. There was a huge wave of optimism because they thought brilliant smokers will be able to get all of the drug that they’re addicted to with none of the filthy, carcinogenic smoke. And they come along. And the U.S. surgeon general, a major study found that 17 percent of smokers are able to stop when they’re given the actual physical drug that they’re addicted to now through nicotine patches. Now, 17 percent is a lot. That’s a huge number of people. If 17 percent of the addiction to smoking is driven by the actual physical drug and the craving for it, and meeting the craving for the physical drug can mean that they stop using the drug. That’s extraordinary. Right. But that still leaves us with 83 percent. That has to be explained in some other way. Now, with something as incredibly complex as human addiction, there’ll be many factors. And we know there are many factors and we know that genetics is a factor. We know that childhood trauma is a factor. We know the isolation and the rat part phenomena are factors. But what we’ve been told up to now, largely not entirely, is a story that focuses on that little 17 percent sliver and doesn’t look at the rest. What I’m saying is we need to have a much broader, three dimensional view of addiction in terms of boxy code on this is really important, because the story you’ve told is one that huge numbers of people, including huge numbers of users, believe about this story. And I think there’s a more complex story going on that is really worth thinking about, because the several things to say about that, I relate it to. I went to Switzerland and looked to this quite low detail, but there’s a very interesting phenomenon called the Iron Law Prohibition. Best way to explain it is the day before alcohol prohibition is banned. The most popular drink by far in the United States is beer. The day after alcohol prohibition ends, the most popular drink in the United States is big in between. You could not get hold of beer. Overwhelmingly, the most popular drinks were whiskey, moonshine. And you think, well, why would that be? Why would banning a drug change the way people use them? It’s a really simple reason. Imagine if you and me had a barrel full of, you know, about a wagon and we had to transport enough drink to your local bar, to the bar across America, smuggling it from Canada or Mexico. If we fill that wagon with beer, we’re not gonna get that many people that drink for the night. One hundred people, if we fill it with whiskey, we’re gonna get an enormously large number of people because it’s much more concentrated drug. This is called the iron ore provision. What it means is when you ban something, only the most extreme and concentrated form will be available on the marketplace. If you’ve seen this with marijuana, you sometimes get people saying, oh, marijuana is much stronger than it used to be. That’s definitely true. That’s precisely because of this dynamic. Most marijuana smokers in Britain, for example, and I’m sure in New York, don’t want to smoke skunk in the same way that you go into a bar. Very few people are drinking vodka and no one’s drinking up sounds, even though they could be. But the market will only provide the most extreme and potent form of the drug. A very similar dynamic is happening with the oxy crisis. Most people who become addicted to oxy a they become addicted because they’re in terrible psychological pain, not because of that kind of accidental addiction. Why has there been a huge increase in OxyContin addiction since 2008? Well, what’s happened in America since 2008, that would mean that a lot more people would be in distress and pain. The collapse of the economy, the collapse of. Middle class. I think that’s a much more plausible explanation, OxyContin existed for a long time. But secondly, the major problems begin at the point. Not all of them by any means, but the major problems begin at the point at which people are cut off. If you’re a doctor and you realize that someone, one of your patients is addicted to oxy, you are legally obliged at that point to cut them off. If you don’t, you can be prosecuted as a drug dealer and go to prison. And that has, in fact, happened to many doctors. So we cut off people at the point of addiction and then throw them into the illegal marketplace precisely because of the iron law prohibition. Most people cannot get hold of oxy when they are cut off by their doctors. The market doesn’t provide it. It’s a mine. It’s a milder form of the drug for the same reason that beer is not provided under alcohol prohibition. What is available on the marketplace? Well, opiate is available on the marketplace. Heroin, that’s the primary driver of why you’re seeing people move from oxy to heroin. And it’s a much simpler solution is what they do in Switzerland. Switzerland, by the way, is a very I’m a citizen of Switzerland as well as Britain. Switzerland is a very conservative country, really. I mean, my Swiss relatives make know Michele Bachmann like Bernie Sanders. These are not liberals and Switzerland has legalized heroin addicts. The way it works is if you’re a heroin addict, you go to your doctor, they’ll examine you, they’ll figure out you’re telling the truth, and then they’ll just assign you to a clinic where you can go every morning and get your heroin. It’s really weird when you go, actually, because it’s just like a kind a nice little Swiss clinic. And these people turn up and they go in and they inject themselves in what looks like a kind of upmarket Manhattan hairdressers. And then they go off to their jobs and they mostly have jobs and lives. The several fascinating space that really relevant to what you’re saying. What’s fascinating is that given the heroin for as long as they want wanted, you can choose your dose and you choose how long you stay on. There is no pressure to stop. But the vast majority of them, because their lives ceased being so chaotic, because the chaos of street stops. They get jobs. They get housing. Of course, that helps to get jobs and housing in Switzerland. The vast majority of them over time choose to reduce that does and eventually stop. So they transition out of the heroin program purely voluntarily. I think it’s a lot you can learn about the oxy crisis from that. It comes back to what we were saying about the lesson of rap hard. Their lives become more bearable. So they want to be present in their lives. If we really want to stop people using oxy, we can’t engage in the fantasy that we will disinvest this drug, not least because if we did disinfect this drug, these people who are incredibly miserable would find some other way of putting their heads right. If you can’t back be in your life, you can’t backspin your life. The key is to make their lives better. So what you would do is, a, you allow prescription for addiction. So if someone is an addict, you don’t cut them off. You carry on prescribing. And what in that period, a prescription, you help them to turn their lives around so that life becomes bearable. And this is probably one of the lessons of Rat Park, I think is in this new understanding of addiction is we need much more significant social change. We live in cultures, you and I, where huge numbers of our fellow citizens can’t bear to be present in their lives. A growing number of people can’t bear to be present in their lives. For a lot of people, life looks a lot more like that first cage and a lot less like Rat Park. If we want to really reduce addiction, there are these policies that I’m talking about in terms of prescription and so on. But there’s a much deeper level of tension at Bruce Alexander, the guy who did the Rat Park experiment. So it’s such an amazing man. He talks about how we talk a lot in addiction, about individual recovery. And that has real value. But we need to talk much more about social recovery. Something has gone wrong with this, not just as individuals, as a group. And we can look at the addicts and we can point at them and say, what’s wrong with him? Or we can talk about what’s wrong with us. 

So the interesting thing that I think is, as I’m listening to you say this, is that Rat Park is a hiddenness tick playground, right? I mean, Rat Park has cheese. They can have sex. 

They can go through the tunnels. They can play with the bulls. That strikes me as sort of the equivalent of a frivolous, happy but superficially happy life. What you’re touching on in the human condition is something presumably deeper. It’s some widespread sense of enemy, some kind of sense of it. It’s what religious people say religion provided it’s you know, it’s what a religious person would say. Yes. This is precisely why people need structure and order and some kind of greater meaning in their life. How do we as secular people inject that? 

I mean, what song could I sit around? Every Tolstoi? It’s true. It depends on the rat. Don’t you underestimate it. 

I think this is where the animal human analogy breaks down. What I would say is not that Rat Park is ahead in this playground, but it’s a place of connection and bonding because that’s the crucial difference between the isolated cages and the other cages. I don’t think it’s so much the kind of luxury rat park isn’t that luxurious. It’s made out of plywood. 

It’s not the cheese and tunnels. It’s the other way inside. 

So I wouldn’t I wouldn’t frame its head. And as my frame it through connection and I think, like you, I’m a militant atheist. And this is certainly not a cry for people to rediscover spiritual transcendence in any sense that would be related to religion. But I think it’s absolutely true that we live in a landscape of desiccated rank materialism where we are trained from an again, Gabal motto, A Doctrine by Cuba. Talk to me about this very well. Things when the people I write about in the book, we live in a landscape where we are trained from birth to think that the answer to all our problems lies in buying something and consuming it. 

If you don’t think that you are not a good citizen of our culture, right. And you basically can’t not think that you are exposed to that message. Bombarded with it hundreds of times a day if you just watch TV, for example, which we almost all do. So I think it’s much more about reorienting ourselves from looking at screens and showing these things and believing we can ingest and consume. The solution to our problems and looking much more to each other. I don’t want to sound too. I want to get well Oprah on you, but it’s looking around and talking to each other and we’ll find the answer in each other. And in connection, not in this kind of bullshit that we’ve been so for so long and then on which we’ve built our entire economies. 

It strikes me that the question of whether or not life is bearable is not a black or white one. Right? It’s not it’s not there. There’s this class of people for whom life is bearable. And then for everyone else, they’re less susceptible to become drug addicts because life is fine and connected and they have lots of bonding. There’s presumably a sliding scale that goes from completely unbearable at one end to absolutely delightful at the other. And we’re all plotted somewhere along that line. Right. Is there any other factor that makes us more susceptible to addiction other than just the bare ability of life? 

I think you’ve pointed to a really. There are other factors, of course. I think you point to a really interesting thing, which I think is another important way in which we need to reframe this argument and in which it’s more challenging to people who would be kind of more on my side, if you like, in this debate, which is the particularly the motile promoted by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which I admire in many ways and think has some flaws, is based on the idea that there’s a kind of binary there’s this group of people who are addicts who work completely differently to the rest of us. And I think you’ve gone to something really important, which is addiction is much more of a spectrum. And is there anyone listening to this who does not feel addicted to their smartphone? Whenever I’m speaking about these things, you know, I never get more vigorous nodes than when I talk about smartphone addiction. That’s what that addiction is. No, it’s not crack addiction. It’s not gonna destroy you unless there’s something going badly wrong. But it is somewhat debilitating that most of us know. A night spent reading Tolstoy to get to side before is better and richer night than a night spent on Twitter or Dadar or a grinder or whatever. Probably it depends what Grindr leads to us. But, you know, most of us know that. So I think there’s there’s a degree to which I dissatisfactions do find relief’s to a significant degree in compulsive behaviors. And there are some signs, you know, we can compare. Why does Sweden have really low levels of addiction and Alabama have really high levels of addiction? Well, drug policy is, to be honest, is a small part of it. We need to talk about drug policy, of course. But actually, Sweden is a pretty bonded, happy, non-state anxiety society where people have lots of leisure. They’re treated well. They have relatively low levels of anxiety because they have relatively low levels of material insecurity. And of course, drug policy is a factor and our drug policies make addiction much worse. It’s very obvious. I went to this prison in Arizona where I went out with this chain gang of women who are forced to wear a T-shirt saying I was a drug addict and made to dig graves and be humiliated and jeered at by the public. And it was very striking to me. Those women will never work again. Right. They’ll get out and their criminal records will never work in the legal economy again. These broken women. And it was actually an incredibly moving speaking to them because they had a. Dignity that I found really inspiring, actually. But it’s very striking to me. You know, they took me to the hole, which is the solitary confinement block. I didn’t think they take me. They took me. The guards took me kind of proud of that thing. And it was very striking. These women, if they commit some incredibly minor infraction, they’re put literally in this stone cage for months. I suddenly saw Jesus. This is the closest you would ever get to an actual literal recreation of the pretty rat heart cages that guaranteed addiction. We take people who are addicts to some degree because they’re isolated. And we make them more isolated and we cut them off more. 

Now, there is a place that’s done the exact opposite of this. I also went to which I think really helps us to understand the answer to the questions you’re asking about ways we can change these things. In the year 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in any developed country. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of mind blowing. 

And every year they tried the American drug war way. Answering is way more and more. They arrested more people. They imprisoned more people. And every year the problem got worse. And one day, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and effectively said, look, we can’t go on like this. Let’s set up a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out what would genuinely solve this problem. And let’s agree in advance that whatever they recommend they would do. I mean, it would be like Boehner and Obama getting together and agreeing a pact to panel to do. I mean, it’s hard to get them to agree with. The time is four, 30 in the afternoon or whatever. But, you know, it’s the equivalent of that. Anyway, the panelists are up is led by an extraordinary doctor called Colao. They go way. They look all the best scientific evidence for year and a half. And they come back and they say decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But and this is the crucial second stage. Take all the money we used to spend on arresting it, trying and imprisoning drug users, and spend it all instead on reconnecting drug addicts with society on really good drug treatment. And it’s not generally what we think of as drug treatment in Britain and America. So they didn’t have residential rehab and counseling and that does have real value. But the biggest part of the program was actually much more related to Lesson of Rat Park. It was about saying, let’s say you were a mechanic and you’ve got an addiction problem. When you’re ready, they’ll go to the garbage and they’ll say, if you employ this guy as a mechanic for a year, we’ll pay half his wages. Or they saw microloans for addicts to set up small businesses. The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It was the exact opposite of what we do, what we cut people off from work. It gave them like a trampoline, impelling them towards work and control of their own lives. And the results, you know, it’s very striking. It’s nearly 15 years. Injecting drug use is down in Portugal by 50 percent. Every study shows overall addiction is down. Overdose is massively down. HIV transmission among addicts is massively down. Street crime is massively down. And I went and saw this system in practice and it was fascinating. But one of the ways, you know, it was really successful is I went and interviewed this guy Coagulant sorry, Zaftig Wera, who led every article. 

How important is that? It I. I literally cannot pronounce Portuguese, so I’ll go outside, you know, like, how do I say your name and you go Kröger. Oh, parking. 

You guys know no matter how many times I just gave up as somebody who has a name, other people like HUDs products. 

Mortified. I thought that if I wanted to read Crafted Reira a name I cannot say. And he was the top drug cop in Portugal and he led the opposition to the decriminalization. And he said a lot of the things that a lot of people listening to this will perfectly reasonably be thinking. Surely if you decriminalize all drugs, you’ll have a massive explosion in use and chaos and all those things. And he said to me the exact words that become paraphrasing, I think I’m getting it right. 

Sedum, everything I said would happen didn’t happen. And everything the other side said would happen did. And he taught by how he felt ashamed that he’d spent 20 years arresting and harassing drug users. And he hoped that the whole world followed Portugal’s example. And it’s very striking. Everywhere I went, this move beyond the drug war, from Switzerland to Portugal to Uruguay. They never regret it. You know, you look looking within the United States and Colorado and Washington state, they voted to legalize marijuana by. It was 53 percent Ford and 47 percent against. It’s been a year now. The margin supporting the legalization is much higher. I think it’s around 67 percent now. When people see the end of the drug war in Prentis, they see that the things they totally legitimately fear don’t come to pass. And I think this is an important element of this debate. Actually, it’s not like safe. I argue with a homophobe right at the end of the day. I just have incommensurable values with a homophobe. I believe in the equality of gay people. They don’t then that you have to prevail over such people. I actually don’t think this debate is like that. It was very striking to me when I would meet with prohibitionists. The things they want to happen are in every instance. And of course, like someone who’s racist or something, you can’t bargain with that. But actually, the vast majority, their goals and my goals are exactly the same. They don’t want kids to use drugs. I completely agree. They don’t want people to become addicts. I completely agree. I don’t want people who are addicts to remain addicts. I completely agree. They don’t like criminality. Well, I don’t like criminality. The only difference, there’s a kind of clash where you simply have different values and want different things. And then there’s a clash, which is a narrower clash, which is a disagreement about how to achieve the goals you both agree on. And I think the drug war to a surprising degree, closer to that, that second model to look at, for example, kids when interviewed in Camden, New Jersey, this guy called Fred Martyn’s. He’s a very right wing cop. He really reminded me of the Clint Eastwood character, Dirty Harry, who is a cop in the 70s. He boasted about because the statute of limitations was up, he boasted about having guns in people’s mouths to make them confess. Right. This is not an ACLU loving liberal. And Fred told me about this epiphany. He had one time he was staking out a car park in Wayne, New Jersey, staking out OHDELA in plain clothes. And a kid came up to him like a ten or eleven year old, maybe a little bit older. I forgot and said to him, Hey, mister, would you mind going into that store and buy me some alcohol? I’m not allowed to buy any. And Fred said I’d get out of here. And the kid went off and the kid went over to the drug dealer and bought some drugs instead because drug dealers don’t check I.D. and Fred had this epiphany where he was like, ah, Fred wouldn’t put it quite like this. But there’s a regulatory barrier between kids and alcohol that we do not have between kids and drugs, which is why the several studies showing the kids find that no one in my nephew’s school is selling Jack Daniels or Budweiser loads of kids and selling weed and pills. There’s a reason for that. A prohibited market is impossible to regulate. A lot of people, when they think about legalization, think it means anarchy. Well, we have at the moment is anarchy. Unknown criminals, so unknown chemicals to unknown uses all in the dark in a very violent trade. I spent a lot of time with an extraordinary thing. One of the people I most admired who I met for the book is a transsexual former crack dealer in Brownsville, Brooklyn, called Chino Hardin, who really talked me through how a prohibited market works on the ground. Chino was selling crack from when he was 13 to when he was in his early 20s and to really learn in detail and then in Ciudad Juarez to go and see that time. One of the deadliest cities still today, one of the deadliest cities in the world. And really see what that does to to a place. And then actually interviewed a guy called Rosalio Reta, who I interviewed him in prison in Texas. He was a hit man for one of the deadliest Mexican drug cartels to the age of 13 and 17. He killed at least 70 people in an extraordinarily barbaric ways, beheadings and things like that. And it was really fascinating to learn from them up close how these prohibited markets work. If you and me go into your local liquor store and we try to steal the beer or the whiskey, they’re going to call the cops and the cops will take us away. That liquor store doesn’t need to be violent. It doesn’t need to be intimidating if we go up to a local weed or coke dealer. Obviously, he can’t bring the police. If he tried to rob him, the police would arrest him. So he has to be intimidating, threatening and violent. He has to you don’t be having a fight every day. So you want to establish a reputation for being so frightening that no one will dare to take you on. The sociologist Philip Burgeois talks about how prohibition creates a culture of terror and this has nothing to do with drugs. If you banned milk and people still wanted to use milk, the milk trade would be regulated according to these rules. Where are the violent alcohol dealers? They no longer exist. The drinks are at Wal-Mart, doesn’t go and blow up the local liquor store, shoot people in the face. But when alcohol was prohibited. That’s exactly what happened to meet people like Rosalio and Chino, whose lives have been unimaginably destroyed. Rosalio will never get out of prison and he’s like eighty five or something if he lives that long, which he won’t because he keeps being stopped in prison to really see an end. Even if you don’t give a damn about the people involved in the actual supply of the drugs. And even if you don’t give a damn about cops and I tell their story as well. The people who were caught on the supply route, the number of people who were killed just in the crossfire. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, calculated that there are 10000 additional murders every year. This was in the 80s as a direct result of drug prohibition. A lot of those people are just people caught in the crossfire. More than 60000 people have died in Mexico in the last seven years. I’m one of the most shocking quotes in the book. I think especially having spent time in northern Mexico was Michelle Lyonheart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, whose wages you pay, said in a Senate testimony. She was asked about the fact that 60000 people had died in the Mexican drug war. Almost certainly an underestimate, an exact words she used where she said it was a sign of success in the war on drugs. And that should be a national scandal, I think. And Americans are good and decent people. They do not want a system that is just one to they killing civilians and certainly don’t regard maximizing civilian death as a good side. 

Do you think that within the context of the fact that we live under this particular regime and do live in a war on drugs, that it’s unethical to use illegal drugs? I mean, there are certain circles that I sometimes swim in which are just awash with cocaine and. 

Los Angeles and in New York, and there’s a real tricky ethical conundrum there about whether or not that’s right. 

I’m wearing clothes that were almost certainly stitched by Bangladeshi or Chinese people who were living in situations pretty close to slavery. I’ve been to Bangladeshi sweatshops. I am wearing a watch. There’s an Apple Watch that was almost certainly assembled by Chinese slaves. Probably I’m speaking to you on a phone that’s made of Congolese coltan, almost certainly. I covered the war in the Congo is the deadliest war since the Holocaust. Six million people have died. Yes, I eat at McDonald’s today. Nutrition really done for other reasons. But they are feeding Amazon, growing soy that’s destroying the Amazon rainforest. The lights in my apartment switched on. 

They’re probably I’m talking about the power source would be. But it’s probably not anything good in the context of the fact that our whole society is implicated with a eco sidel and human rights destroying, negating culture. 

It is also ethically questionable to use illegal drugs. I don’t do it, not for those reasons, because I’m wearing all these clothes and consuming all these products. Yeah, it’s ethically questionable. There’s a huge amount in the way we live. It’s ethically questionable. What I cannot standard, I think, is wrong. It’s a symptom of the way we live. And what’s gone wrong with the way we live is to focus, therefore, on your role as an individual consumer, as an individual consumer. You have very little power in anything. As a citizen of a democracy, you have a huge amount of power for the same reason I don’t like. Otherwise, my people who do them, I think the decent people that some of them, my friends, people who focus their energy on combating global warming by trying to get people to change their individual consumption patterns as voluntary consumers. To me, that’s like it’s like it’s 1937 and everyone is worried about Hitler invading. Poland is going around signing pledges that they personally weren’t invade Poland. Well, that’s very nice. But someone’s gonna have to go and stop the person who is invading Poland. And in the same way, it’s all fine and well to say, well, I’m morally pure, I’m not part of the system, but actually your major responsiblity, a momentous one. But he’s as taxpayers, we are imposing this system upon the world. So you can say as an individual consumer, I don’t personally wear Bangladeshi stitch clothes. I don’t personally use cocaine from Colombia. Well, good for you. But your taxes through the WTO, we impose that system on Bangladesh and through the U.N. Office of Drug Control. We impose that upon Colombia. To me, it’s a complete red herring is an issue. People can have their little crises of conscience and they can have their ethical discussions. If I was asking my advice. I would advise you not to use cocaine for a whole panoply of reasons. And one of them is the reason we’re giving. But frankly, I think it’s an incredibly trivial question compared to what we can do as citizens to change things. And if people are feeling, you know, what can I do as a citizen, which is exactly how the most powerful forces in the world want us to think. I would tell you a story about the most inspiring person I met for my book. Again, in the year 2000. I didn’t meet him then, but this is where I pick up his story in the book. There was a homeless street addict in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver who borrows from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. For people who don’t know it had the highest concentration of addicts anywhere in North America. It was like the place at the end of the line in the city, at the end of the line of North America, and people would show up behind dumpsters so the cops wouldn’t see them. But obviously, if you’re shooting up at a place where the cops can’t see your hidden, no one can see you. If you start to I.D. and your body is found like two days later, he’s dead. And Bud was looking at these people dying all around him, knowing that he was quite likely to be next and said to himself, look, I can’t just watch this happen. I have to do something. But he also thought I’m a homeless street addict. What can I do? And he had a really small and simple idea. He got together a group of the addicts, and he said, when we’re not using, which is most of the time for even hardcore addicts, why don’t we. Not with any officials involved, just us. Why don’t we just arrange a timetable and a patrol? So we’ll just patrol the alleyways and look behind the dumpsters. If we spot someone ODing, we’ll just bring an ambulance. So the addict started to do this. And within a few months, the overdose rates start to really significantly fall in the Downtown Eastside, which was great thing in itself. And then people were living. But also it meant that the addicts start to think differently about themselves. They start to think, oh, maybe we’re not the pieces of shit that everyone says we are. Maybe maybe we can do something. They start to turn up at meetings that discussed like the menace of the addicts, and they would sit at the back and they’d weigh. And after a while they had hand say, oh, I think you’re talking about us. Is there anything we can do differently? And sometimes people be angry. Sometimes they’d say, you leave your needles lying around. And Bud said, that’s fine, will extend the patrol, will pick up the needles. And they started doing that. And Bud started to learn in Frankfurt. In Germany, they had set up safe injecting rooms where addicts could go and use their drugs and be monitored by addicts and overdose at virtually ended deaths by overdose and virtually ended in France. And I thought we could have this here. But there had never been anything like that since Henry Smith Williams, the doctor we were talking about before, was shut down in the 30s. But there was a right wing mayor of Vancouver called Filipo him, who was a rich businessman, basically pitching Mitt Romney. And you’ve got the idea right. And they decided to just stalk him everywhere he went carrying a coffin. And the coffin had written on it something like. He will die next Filipov, and before you open a safe injecting room for the poem was not a likely target for conversion FILLIPO. It said that all the addicts in Vancouver should be taken and detained at the local military base in Chilliwack and not out. But they spent years stalking Phillip Island and they get a bit disheartened because nothing is changing. And one day, to his eternal credit, Filipovic says, Who the hell are these people? And Incognito, he goes to the Downtown Eastside and he just meets loads of addicts and he spends lots of time talking to them. And he’s totally blown away. And he goes to meet Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist. He was very good on the drug war, partly because he’d grown up under alcohol prohibition in Chicago. And Philip Hammond comes back and holds a press conference and he has the chief of police, the coroner and a representative of the Addicks explains they going to open the first safe injecting room in North America, could have the most compassionate drug policies in North America. And they open it. And Philip Hoban’s right wing party, dyslexia, because they’re so horrified that the liberal candidate who runs against the replacement conservative candidate wins and keeps the injecting ropin. And when I went to the Downtown Eastside, the injecting room had been open for a decade. And again, the results were in. Overdose deaths were down by 80 percent, eight zero percent. An average life expectancy on the downtown side has risen by 10 years. I mean, you don’t get a pit of illogical figures like that except when wars end, which is, of course, what this is. When I spoke to Filipo, when he told me that it was the proudest thing he ever did and he would sacrifice his political career all over again. And Bud, who started the uprising, the homeless guy, he died last year. I got to interview him quite extensively. People can hear the interviews on the book’s Web site chasing the scream dot com. But, you know, when Bob died, they sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside where he had lived. And they had this incredible memorial service. And there were huge numbers of people in that crowd who knew that they were alive because of what Bob did. The Canadian Supreme Court has ruled as a direct result of their activism. Addicts have an inalienable right to life, and that includes the right to an injecting room, and that can never be shut down. Now, if there are people listening to this who were thinking the drug war is terrible, but there’s nothing we can do as citizens. I would just say thinking bad is hard to think of a more powerless person than a homeless street addict, but didn’t wait for a leader to come along. He didn’t sit there and wring his hands and say it’s also difficult. He just got started. And what he started has transformed his city and his country. You are so much more powerful than you know if Bud can do it. We can do it. And the one thing you can say for the drug war is we gave it a fair chance. We’ve been doing this for a hundred years. We can have another century where all these people die completely needlessly, or we can have a century in which we have liberty for drug users, compassion for drug addicts, and we don’t kill enormous numbers of people along the supply chain. It’s up to us. 

The book is Chasing the Scream The First and last Days of the War on Drugs. Johann Hari, great to talk to you. Thanks for being with us. 

Thanks, Josh. I really enjoyed it. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.