What’s at stake in the war on drugs

Here’s a list of things I thought to be true before I read Johann Hari’s chronicle of the beginning (and end?) of the global war on drugs: many narcotics have such powerful effects on the brain that addiction is almost certain. Drugs have gotten stronger over the years because people are always seeking the higher high. Narcotics have always been prohibited. The “war on drugs” was started because of a genuine concern for the welfare of people, vulnerable as they are to the temptations that narcotics offer. That same war on drugs may get messy at times, but it’s ultimately for the good of our society.

I’m not convinced of any of these things anymore. It seems the difference between myth and conventional wisdom isn’t always so clear; at least there’s one of the things I’m left with after reading Hari’s book. So much of the way we manage and enforce the prohibition of narcotics just seems like sensible policy. But, as Hari writes in the introduction, “Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is. The drug war is not what our politicians have sold it as for one hundred years and counting.”

This the thesis that Hari chases through the book, which is a blend of history and travelogue, written in an amped-up journalistic argot, veering at times from the lurid to the prescient. It’s empathetic, yet occasionally feels a bit superficial, too. Hari, formerly a journalist for The Independent in London, begins his reconstruction of the drug war in early 20th century America, telling of the rise of Harry Anslinger, a head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger blended the American fears of “racial minorities, of intoxication, of losing control,” into the modern prohibition of narcotics, not only in the United States, but across the globe. The New York gangster Arnold Rothstein figures alongside him too, as the paradigmatic example of the drug lord who thrives during prohibition. Other drug lords, hustlers, cops, bereaved mothers, policy wonks and political gadflys follow in their wake, as Hari travels around the globe, seeking to understand the nature of the drug war in Mexico, America, the UK and in the European countries that have found success in decriminalization efforts.

His findings are counterintuitive and compelling: Brain chemistry plays a part in addictions, but mental health, community and other markers of healthy social adaptation matter tremendously, too (as such, it makes much more sense to fund mental health treatment programs than it does to fund prisons). The deleterious effects of opiate addiction has less to do with the drug itself than what it’s laced with. Drugs get stronger when they’re prohibited – during the alcohol prohibition in the 20s, the national taste switched from beer to whiskey, for the simple reason that smugglers chose to deal more concentrated varieties of booze, which maximized profits. Efforts at decriminalization in the Netherlands, Portugal and Colorado have led to slightly higher drug use per capita, but plummeting rates of addiction, overdoses and drug crime.

This is the sort of book that puts Christians in a weird spot. We’ve not been famous for advocating the legalization or decriminalization of narcotics, because we’re not the sort of people who tend to advocate a libertine use of intoxicants. (Though many of us do imbibe, and there’s a few smokers among us, too – legal substances, which means no one gets shot on street corners over Bud Light, and tobacco execs don’t tunnel out of jail cells). Hari doesn’t sound like much of a libertine, either. He’s not advocating for the liberalization of drug laws because he thinks more people ought to cultivate a cocaine habit on the weekends. Instead, he’s out to show that the prohibition of narcotics is far more destructive to our society than the narcotic use itself. It’s created a massive prison-industrial complex, it has enriched monsters and their syndicates, and has laid tremendous shame and stigma on people who’ve struggled with addictions – often people who’ve had stigma and shame that drove them there in the first place. For Hari, it’s matter of justice, of prudent and compassionate social policy. That’s the sorts of things Christians can get behind, and we’ll surely be talking more about this soon, since drug enforcement laws are starting to change, both in the United States and Canada. Chasing the Scream is a fine introduction to the issues at stake.


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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