Johann Hari: The Lessons of a Failed War on Drugs

The 2015 book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, is a New York Times bestseller. It’s also a scathing account of the trillion dollar, global drug war’s many policy failures. The book’s author, Scottish-born journalist Johann Hari, has traveled to over 18 countries to investigate drug criminalization. What he realized on that 30,000 mile journey is that almost everything he thought he knew about addiction was wrong.

“Drugs are not what we think they are, addiction is not what we think it is, the War on Drugs is not what we think it is, and the alternatives to [it]are not what we think they are,” Hari said to a packed auditorium on November 21 during his public Vancouver speech. The talk was the first installment of three in the Roddan Jubilee Lecture Series hosted by Dr. Carmen Landsdowne of First United Church in the Downtown Eastside.

After the book’s release in January 2015, Johann Hari went on to become a household name when it led to a TED Talk examining those same Drug War revelations. It has been viewed over eight million times. Another animation adapted from Hari’s book by design studio Kurzgesagt has been viewed over 15 million times.

“If you had asked me when I started doing the research, ‘What causes heroin addiction?’, I would have looked at you like you were an idiot,” the author confesses to the audience. “I would have said, ‘Well, the clue’s in the name, dummy. It’s called heroin addiction, it’s obviously caused by heroin’.” We’ve been told this story so often, Hari says, that it has become part of our common sense.

The author’s talk was a paean to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside which he encouraged the audience to be tremendously proud of. Hari relayed the deep impact the community had on him both professionally and personally. “I’m genuinely glad to be here because coming to the Downtown Eastside changed my life and taught me some of the most profound lessons I’ve ever learned.”

In his youth, Hari once attempted to revive a relative of his who had been using drugs, but the relative never woke up. That pain repeated itself when an adult Hari realized the depths of a partner’s heroin and crack-cocaine use. He wanted to understand addiction, and this book was how he would do that.

Hari began writing when the 100-year anniversary of the first ban on drugs in 1914 was approaching: he was looking for answers to what he called, “really simple” questions including “Why did we go to war against people with addictions a hundred years ago? Why are we carrying on when it doesn’t seem to work?” and, “What really causes addiction?”

– Read the entire article at National Observer.