“Chasing The Scream” Is A Powerful Antidote To The Drug War

Before 1914, “you could go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine,” writes Johann Hari in his monumental book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs . Moreover, “the most popular cough mixtures in the United States contained opiates, a new soft drink called Coca-Cola was made from the same plant as snortable cocaine, and over in Britain, the classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women. ”

The classiest department stores sold heroin tins for society women.And yet, there was no drug problem as we now know it. Early attempts at control were regulatory in nature. Nevertheless, the folks walking the straight and narrow convinced a nation to impose an outright ban on the most dangerous drug, alcohol, in 1919. Prohibition reigned for fourteen years until it was repealed in 1933. During this time, the people had not reformed. They still wanted booze, and so organized crime moved in. Violent criminals engaged in turf wars. Al Capone’s gang wiped out seven members of the North Side Irish in the infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.

Drug War
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Drug War

Drug War – The Beginning of It All

But prohibition was repealed in 1933. Indeed, it was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign promises. Up to then, there were only sporadic attempts at narcotics control. A rising star in the bureaucracy was prominent in the attempt.

A man named Harry Anslinger traveled around the world fighting international drug trafficking. In 1929, he was appointed assistant commissioner in the Bureau of (Alcohol) Prohibition. In 1930, he was appointed to head the fledgling Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which he ran for 32 years.

But when he was appointed, he immediately had a problem. ” A war on narcotics alone – cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914 – wasn’t enough. They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs. He needed more. ” Anslinger, argues Hari, was the true father of the War on Drugs as we know it today.

Johann Hari’s book is a tour de force in its depiction of the drug war. Divided into five parts, it examines the drug war and drug culture in great depth. The first part looks at those 1930s origins of the War on Drugs. Anslinger and his men were driven by fear and loathing not only of drugs, but of the culture that used them – jazz musicians and blacks.

A war on narcotics alone wasn’t enough. They were only used by a tiny minority. They needed more.He had a particular bee in his bonnet for singer Billie Holiday. The jazz community were heavy marijuana users, and though Anslinger had previously written weed off as not worth pursuing, he now saw an opportunity. Almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were using the drug much more than white people.”

He pushed lurid tales of drug-addled blacks seducing white women or worse. He also raised the spectre of Chinese opium dens and Asians with “a liking for the charms of Caucasian girls…from good families,” leading them into “unspeakable sexual depravity.”

He defied evidence to the contrary. “He wrote to thirty scientific experts asking a series of questions about marijuana. Twenty-nine of them wrote back saying it would be wrong to ban it, and that it was widely misrepresented in the press. Anslinger decided to ignore them and quoted instead the one expert who believed it was a great evil that had to be eradicated.”

Anslinger went even further. Doctors were still legally allowed to prescribe narcotics to patients for illness but not addiction, and Anslinger went after an outspoken doctor, Edward Williams, who was an articulate spokesman for narcotics use. Anslinger’s department engaged in entrapment to lock up the man and cow the medical profession. Writes Hari, “You only have to destroy a few doctors to silence the rest. Maximum intimidation. This was always [Anslinger’s] way.”

Hari also looks at the role of the mob, namely, how a gangster named Arnold Rothstein moved in to control the illegal market once Anslinger had destroyed the legal one.

I’m only giving a few isolated quotes to catch the flavour of the book, but the chapters on Anslinger, Billie Holiday, and Arnold Rothstein are rich in detail. They’re written at a torrid pace in prose that is hard to put down. The book is compelling.

Drug War – Modern Warfare

The second part looks at the drug war today. Hari talks to a young transgendered drug gangster named Chino. A girl who wants to be a man, dresses like a man, fights like a man, and has absolute control over his gang, the Souls of Mischief. He learns the ins and outs of the drug trade on the streets. The violence. The allure. The profits. He cites Milton Friedman to the effect that the drug trade adds ten thousand murders a year in the US, and Professor Jeffrey Miron at Harvard believes this is a low estimate: ” Take the drug trade away from criminals, he calculates, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by between 25 and 75 percent. ”

Take the drug trade away from criminals, and it would reduce the homicide rate in the United States by 25 to 75 percent.He talks to Leigh Maddox, a former cop who was a gung-ho drug enforcer. She also worked undercover busting ultra-violent factions of the Ku Klux Klan. Now she is active with LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition). What led to her epiphany? Hari tells the story.

The third part includes the most horrifying tales from the drug wars. Chapter 8, called State of Shame tells the disturbing story of a chain gang of female meth addicts in Arizona. Like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, they are forced to wear signs saying why they are there: “I am a meth addict,” and so on. They are roused at 5 a.m. without food and hustled off to work, shackled in leg irons. The sheriff proudly refers to his jail as his “concentration camp.” The chain gang is forced to chant. Several chants are quoted. Here’s one:

We’re in stripes

They’re in brown (meaning the guards)

We walk in chains with them close by

We dare not run, we dare not hide

Don’t you dare give them no lip

‘Cause they got tasers on their hip

There’s a punishment cell called the Hole. Hari asks to see it and the guards oblige. “The cell doors have a tiny slit in them, and as the guards unlock them, eyes peer out. When they see an outsider, they immediately start yelling for help, and their voices have a cracked quality, as though their throats are too narrow to let out their words. The first thing that hits me as I approach these eyes is the stink, literally, of shit: it is so overwhelming it makes me retch.”

One day

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