It starts on a cautious note. “The audio of the quotes from this book that were spoken directly to the author can be heard in full at chasingthescream.com – you can hear the voices of all the people from the book while you read.” A writer being diligent about sources, yes, but Johann Hari has more reason to be diligent than most. You may recall in 2011 he was accused of lifting interview quotes from others’ articles and inserting them into his own, which resulted in him having to return the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing, and contributed to him quitting as a columnist at The Independent. Hari said at the time he left the paper to concentrate on a book about the war on drugs. This is the book.
Chasing The Scream, emblazoned with quotes from father of modern linguistics Noam Chomsky (“Wonderful”), NSA-rattling journalist Glenn Greenwald (“Rigorous”) and spangly-bespectacled pianist Elton John (“Stunning”), is Hari’s attempt to unpick the war on drugs, and to find out whether such an incursion is in fact the best approach. He starts at the beginning, in the run-up to 1930, when prohibitionist Harry J Anslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and allowed gangster Arnold Rothstein – who famously fixed the 1919 World Series – to organise and control the illicit drugs trade. Meanwhile, the talented jazz singer and drug addict Billie Holiday became a target for both. There were no winners.
It’s a pattern Hari observes again and again through the decades: a zealous, misguided or sometimes deeply prejudiced person in power decides to eradicate the social blight of drugs, forcing, even offering, the drugs trade to criminals, while the hopeless and the helpless are caught in the crossfire. He meets scientists, counsellors, addicts and dealers who point out the folly of this approach, which he backs up with studies of murder rates, the workings of the human brain and, particularly memorably, self-fellating rats.
Hari’s against the idea of a war on drugs and the book is formulated to support this. He puts himself front and centre of the narrative, mentioning how drugs have hurt people close to him – which prompted the book – while also describing the distances he’s travelled pursuing the story (America, Sweden, Mexico, Canada, Portugal, Britain, Switzerland, Uruguay and Vietnam). Every description of a scary interview or dusty library discovery is heavy on first person pronouns (arguably not so much narcissism as Hari, anticipating his critics, making it clear he was there).
Certainly, commentators who disliked Hari for being jumped up (he got gigs at The Independent and the New Statesman when fresh out of Cambridge) or not overly contrite for his wrongdoings (aside from the plagiarism, he also did some malicious Wikipedia meddling), may not see any particular reason to change their minds. But for those who admired him, and there were and are many, Chasing The Scream is a fascinating, extensively researched and heartfelt contribution to a debate over drugs policy that continues to rage today. And for those on the fence about drugs policy and Johann Hari, he might just have got them off it.
Chasing The Scream by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury) is out 15 January