Ending the Drug War: An Interview with Johann Hari

By Zachary Siegel 02/12/15

The author of Chasing the Scream talks the results of the drug war with us.

via author

I write and read about addiction and drug culture all the time and to my own shock, I was constantly being enlightened throughout Johann Hari’s new captivating book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It’s a thrilling read that creates a unified image of what the world looks like after a hundred years of drug war. 

Below is an interview with Johann where he tells of his discoveries and stories, full of heart and heartbreak, on his travels cataloging an absurd war that should’ve never been. 

I’m really excited to be speaking with you. In your book, the several narratives, both historical and current, are all woven together beautifully which, I think, served to ground lofty abstractions like “the drug war” and “the drug addict” and even “addiction” itself. I thought it was remarkably empathic and impactful. Very moving. Well done. 

Thank you, really. I’m so glad you said that because I think one of the things that has really gone wrong with this debate for the last one hundred years—ever since drugs have been criminalized—is that we talk like we’re at some philosophical seminar about the way the world should be. I didn’t want to do that. I firmly wanted to write a book about how people’s actual lives are actually affected by this. 

You traveled to nine different countries, a 30,000 mile trip. Did you wake up one day and hop on the road? What prompted your journey?  

I think it was a combination of things. One of my earliest memories is of trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. As I got older, I realized that I had a lot of addiction in my family. I think, like a lot of people who have backgrounds in addiction, I was very drawn to addicts; I was in a relationship with an addict. Another close relative of mine, closer to me in age, had also developed a very bad cocaine addiction. 

I kind of realized in the middle of all this that we were coming up to 100 years since the War on Drugs began. Two global wars began in 1914: the First World War and the War on Drugs, which has yet to end. I also realized that I had some basic questions that I didn’t know the answers to, though, I had written about this stuff for years as a newspaper columnist and felt I knew quite a lot. So really basic questions like, why were drugs banned in the first place a hundred years ago? Why do we carry on with the strategy we’ve got when so many can see it doesn’t work? What really causes drug use and drug addiction? And what are the alternatives like? Where are they being tried? 

I wanted to know what this is like on the ground, all over the world, for real people. That meant just going to sit with people and spend some time with them: from a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn to a hitman for the Zetas in Mexico, to doctors in the only country in the entire world where every drug, from cannabis to crack, is decriminalized. 

Is there any one anecdote or moving moment that sticks out while traveling that you’d like to share? 

Oh, there’s so many. For me, one of the moments that will stay with me for the rest of my life was meeting Bud Osborn. 

In the year 2000, Bud Osborn was a homeless addict on the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Downtown Eastside has the highest concentration of addicts in North America. It’s the place at the end of the line and locals call it “Terminal City.” Bud was watching his friends die all around him. People would use behind dumpsters so police wouldn’t see them, but obviously, if you use behind a dumpster and the police can’t see you, no one else can see you—you’re found a day later and dead. 

Bud had a really simple idea. He got together a group of addict-friends and asked them to just patrol the alleyway while they weren’t using and when they spot someone who is ODing, call an ambulance. 

Because of Bud’s heroism, Canada opened a safe-injection room. Phillip Owen, a right-winged Mitt Romney-type (for an American analogy), was deselected as the conservative party candidate because his party was horrified that he encouraged this injection room to open. A more left-wing candidate who kept the room open replaced him. 

I was there 10 years after the injection room opened and the results are in: overdose is down 80% and average life expectancy on the Downtown Eastside increased by 10 years. It’s mind-blowing. You don’t even get improved mortality like that at the end of a war, which is what this is. 

Bud died last year and he was only in his early sixties—being a street addict in a drug war takes a toll on you. They sealed off the streets of the Downtown Eastside, where he had lived, homeless, and there was this enormous crowd. A lot of people in that crowd knew they were alive because of what Bud did. So what I would say to anyone tuning into this is, I know you all feel powerless sometimes, I know you all feel hopeless, we all do sometimes, but you are so much more powerful than you know. Addicts can be incredible heroes. I learned that through people like Bud Osborn, through Billie Holiday—the everyday heroism of carrying on when you’re in terrible pain, terrible suffering. Those are the things that are really worth thinking about.

You were in close touch with a couple of Canadian doctors and researchers, mainly, Gabor Maté and Bruce Alexander. What did they show you about addiction that is contrary to mainstream beliefs? 

If you had asked me four years ago what causes heroin addiction, I’d have looked at you like you were a little bit stupid and said, well, heroin causes heroin addiction. For a hundred years we’ve been told a story about what causes addiction that’s so ubiquitous it just seems like common sense. 

Say that you, me, and the next twenty other people we meet on the street all use heroin for 20 days. By day 21, our bodies will physically need the heroin. And we think that is what addiction is: to physically crave the drug that your body needs to prevent you from going into withdrawal. 

The first thing that pricked my awareness that that might not be right was something that Gabor Maté pointed out to me. Say you’re walking down the street and you get hit by a car and break your hip. You’d be taken to the hospital and given diamorphine, which is heroin. It’s actually much better than the heroin you score on the street because it is medically pure. You’d be given this drug for quite a long time. This is happening in hospitals everywhere in the developed world. 

If what we think about addiction is right, there is an obvious next step: those people should leave the hospital as heroin addicts and start to score on the street. But that rarely happens. Your grandmother will not turn into a junkie after she gets a hip operation. And that made me think that there might be something else going on here. 

Something that goes beyond just the chemical factor? 

Exactly. That’s when I met Bruce Alexander, who is an extraordinary man, a professor in Vancouver. He explained to me that this old theory of addiction we have, originated from a series of experiments that took place in the early twentieth century. People reading this can Google them if they’re feeling a bit sadistic. 

Bruce built Rat Park, which is like heaven for rats. Anything a rat could conceivably want is in Rat Park: nice little colored balls, nice food, and loads of friends, sex, whatever a rat wants. On top of that, there are the water bottles: one laced with drugs and the other is just regular water. In Rat Park, the rats don’t like the drugged water. They hardly used any of it. None of them used it compulsively and none of them overdosed. 

You go from virtually everyone in isolation using loads of it and almost always dying to virtually no one doing that in Rat Park. Bruce began to realize that the right and left-wing theory of addiction are both wrong. The right-wing theory is that it is a moral failing, that you’re a hedonist, you party too hard and kind of fall into it. The left-wing theory is, you know, a brain disease, it takes you over, “hijacked,” you can’t help yourself. 

What Bruce says is that it is neither your morality nor your brain—it’s your cage, your environment. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. Bruce is not saying that this is the sole explanation for addiction, but that it is a very significant one that has been massively neglected. 

So what are the implications? What does this tell us about drug addicts in our society? 

There is a human example that really illustrates this, similar to Rat Park, called the Vietnam War. About 20% of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin. If you look at the news reports from the time, people were really scared.

Actually, the evidence is that they came home and the overwhelming majority just stopped. There was no rehab, they didn’t go through agonizing withdrawal—they just stopped. Because they’ve been taken out of a jungle where they could get killed at any moment and went back to a nice home in Wichita, Kansas with a job and friends, they didn’t want to be fucked up all the time. They wanted to be present in their lives. 

The implications of Rat Park are really massive. It provides a massive answer to the War on Drugs because the War on Drugs is based on the idea that chemicals take people over and therefore we need to physically eradicate chemicals from the world. It’s actually that chemicals are not the main driver, in fact, the main driver is isolation and pain from disconnection. That suggests we should have a whole different structure to deal with treating it. The current structure we have increases dislocation, disconnection, and pain. We have a theory that says what we should do with addicts is make them suffer to make them stop. 

Where do you see current policies causing this pain you describe? 

I went out to Arizona with a chain gang of women who were forced to go out and work wearing t-shirts that say, "I WAS A DRUG USER." They are humiliated, forced to dig graves, and put into solitary confinement. If you look at it, I mean, it’s the closest thing you can ever get to the recreation of the original experiment that causes addiction. And Gabor said to me, “If I had to design a system that was intended to keep people addicted, I’d design exactly the system that we have right now.”

There are implications for the drug war but there are also more important implications to the way we live. What we’ve created is a society where large numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives. 

Here is a great quote from Bruce, “Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them…they need to fill an inner-void that is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people who live in the late modern era to a greater or lesser degree.” 

I think that really resonated with me. There is a sense of dislocation that is running through our society like a bone cancer and we all feel it to a greater or lesser degree. You know, we’ve become richer but we’ve become less connected to each other. We’ve, in fact, become disconnected. We have parodies of connection like “Facebook friendships,” which everyone knows is very different from an actual friendship. 

What does recovery from this kind of malaise look like, then? 

In addiction, we talk a lot about individual recovery and that is hugely valuable. But what Bruce talks a lot about is social recovery. If something has gone wrong with us as individuals then something has gone wrong with us as a group and we need to think about how we recover as a group, how we restore our ways of connecting and bonding, being together and supporting each other by being present in each other's lives. That requires much bigger social change. 

And addiction, I think, is just a subset of the wider crisis of how we’ve been misdirected in our interests and our desires. We’ve been trained from childhood by massive advertising machines—by the whole structure of our economy—to think that the answer lies in buying something, getting something, consuming something. 

No one lies on his or her deathbed and thinks, "What a great life I had: I consumed 700 sweaters, I bought 5 cars, I owned 3 houses." No one thinks about that stuff. What they think about are their human relations—other people they loved and the moments in which they were loved and connected. 

A hot-button issue for The Fix has recently been the treatment of the addictions. I know your trip to Portugal could enlighten all of us with respect to how we begin to politically treat addiction, but what are your thoughts on AA/NA? Did this come up throughout your travels? 

So I’ve gone to Al-Anon, I’m in favor of AA and NA. I’ve had many people close to me that I’ve urged to go and it has helped them. One of the lessons of Rat Park, with this new understanding of addiction, is that it helps to understand that there are bits that work with AA and NA, and bits that, perhaps, may need some revising. 

I think the bit that works with AA and NA is that it provides an alternative community where you can bond and connect. It’s a place where you can go and people care about you, they invest in you emotionally and you invest in them emotionally. You can become more like the rats in Rat Park and less like the rats in the first (isolated) cage. I think that is really important and I think it is the key as to why it works, when it does work. 

The bits that I think have a more mixed-affect are the specific theologies around NA and AA. It’s not a critique or a criticism; obviously, people who invented those things early in the twentieth century had a cruder understanding of what causes addiction than we do now. Of course, how could it be any other way? 

Right, I think of it like, with Isaac Newton’s conception of gravity: He put forth a great theory that we later revised to come up with a better one—no one needs to dump on Newton. He just didn’t know. 

Exactly, that is a great way of putting it. And I think the core of the model is brilliant. It provides a place where people can connect. I think some of the theology we can have reformed but people who like it the way it is, who are happy with the current theology, I’m 100% on their side. I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. 

For something as complex as human addiction there needs to be a lot of things on the menu to keep you alive for when you want to stop, if you want to stop. I’m not interested in taking anything off the menu; I’m in favor of adding things to the menu. And maybe, there are tweaks and evolutions of AA and NA that will be a useful addition to the conversation. And I think we can learn a lot from Portugal. 

What did you see in Portugal that we ought to be emulating? 

The single most important thing in Portugal was subsidized jobs and subsidized business loans for addicts. Basically, the goal in Portugal was to make sure that every addict has something to wake up for in the morning—has a purpose in his or her lives. 

I was told about this group of 15 drug addicts who were in recovery and were given a micro-loan to set up a moving firm, you know, if you wanted to move from your house. So suddenly they had this sense of community. Some of the 15, of course, relapsed. But it meant that when someone relapsed that person had 14 friends there who had a huge investment in making sure he or she got clean. You know, supporting each other, loving each other—making sure that they got their lives back on track. 

All of those things, again, are about reconnection. And again, I would stress that it is the exact opposite of what we do. What we do is make it almost impossible for people to get jobs. Those women I met in Texas and Arizona are very unlikely to get a job in the legal economy ever again because they’ve got a criminal record. So the whole Portuguese system is geared toward offsetting that. It has been almost 15 years and the results are in: every study shows addiction is down, injection drug use is down by 50%, and these are falls that did not happen in Spain next door, which hasn’t had the same policies. 

I think the key lesson in Portugal is that we need to have a legal system, a health system, and models of rehab that are designed to help reconnect addicts with society and to have a purpose in that society. That needs to be our central goal. Just removing people from the path of addiction to a very distant place and putting them back into the original thing fails quite badly. It much more needs to be about support in the community to get people back to work, back to meaning, back to life. 

Anything else you’d like to tell people about what this experience has taught you? 

The most important thing I’d say to people is that we will live to see the end of this if we organize and demand it. In 1963, a bunch of drag queens started a riot in New York City. The people on the pro-gay side said that they were diseased, that these people are sick, so you shouldn’t be nasty toward them. That was how extreme the argument was back then. A lot of people who started that riot have lived to see the introduction of gay marriage in the United States. 

Things can get unimaginably better in really short periods of time if we organize, if we demand it, and we appeal to people with decency and compassion. I really think most people want to be compassionate and decent toward addicts and want to choose a policy that will help them to recover and have meaningful lives. I think we just need to explain that to people. We can really organize and humanize addicts. Addicts are people like anybody else, they can be Billie Holiday or Bud Osborn—they can be heroes. 

On your website there are tabs which we’ll post that can direct people to organizations that are doing great work to end this. 

Yes. There are loads of organizations and I really urge people to get involved in those organizations. If there are none in your area, set one up. Bud did not wait for an organization to exist, he was a homeless street addict—he had to help himself. 

Johann Hari's book, Chasing The Scream, is available as a hardcover, e-book and audiobook now: details for where to buy it at www.chasingthescream.com. If you would like to be kept informed on this subject you can like the book's Facebook page at or follow Johann on Twitter. 

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.