Johann Hari @ Edinburgh International Book Festival 2015

Moyan Brenn, Edinburgh Festival / CC
Photograph: Moyan Brenn / CC

Drugs policy is a controversial topic and may not seem like an interesting topic to use for a book, yet Johann Hari has done just that. Chasing the Scream uses human stories to advocate the legalisation of drugs. Hari has travelled to many countries to speak with many people on their experiences of personal drug abuse or those associated with it. Hari choses to focus the book on the people affected to convey simply and honestly what the current situation really is and how much it needs to change.

Hari begins by discussing how the ‘war on drugs’ became the issue it is now due to a man named Harry Anslinger, the United States government official who was a big supporter of the criminalisation of drugs. He feared drug addicts believing they would infect everyone around them and he made it his life’s work to rid the streets of drugs, which seems a noble cause until you uncover why he felt that way. Anslinger believed that drugs were a way of attacking white people and destroying what privilege they had, and this belief led him to implement laws that would create the terrible drug situation we have now.

He became focused on the legendary singer Billie Holliday, famed as much for her tragic life as for her talent. Holliday embodied everything Anslinger despised: she was black, sang out against oppression and was a drug user. He had her followed, imprisoned and blacklisted which prevented her from being able to sing anywhere. Billie Holliday never gave up despite spiralling into terrible drug abuse but she continued to sing wherever she was able to until her life ended due to Anslinger cutting off her methadone while she was recovering in hospital.

The crackdown on drugs created widespread problems including drug gangs, illegal dealings, crime, and overall a dangerous underground system of violence and destruction which is still a big problem today with two people in Scotland alone overdosing every day.

Hari tells of Bud Osborne, a homeless addict in Vancouver who grew tired of watching his friends overdose around him, he set up a group Vando which aimed to help those addicts on the streets from dying in such awful circumstances. As this group grew and developed they began following the mayor, Philip Owen, around with a coffin to convey the situation to him. Perplexed by this Owen eventually looked into the situation and was horrified by it; he took a stand which lost him his position of power but led to the first legal injecting room in North America.

These rooms allowed addicts to receive heroin in a clean, safe environment; lowering the overdose deaths by 80%. Ruth Dreyfus, the first female president of Switzerland was revolutionary in legalising heroin for addicts and it has reduced drug crime, violence, and deaths for the country.

Hari raises an excellent point that is sure to make everyone think twice about what they believe about drugs. Hospital patients are often given diamorphine which is heroin, so why do these patients not leave hospital as addicts? While we all know drugs can be harmful and can lead to addiction, Hari reveals that 90% of people who take drugs do not get harmed in anyway. He suggests that drug users need what alcohol users get – liberty, health advice, and help when they need it. With different structures for different drugs such as licensed ecstasy bars and prescribed heroin, Hari believes the drug problem can be vastly reduced in our society.

This fascinating, and no doubt controversial, event was more than eye-opening and even for someone who understands the lies that propagate the drug war it was sickening to hear just how dire the situation is and how the current ‘war on drugs’ is continuing the vicious cycle that threatens to erode the foundation of society. As Hari said, “The drug war can only continue because we’ve dehumanised the people at the heart of it”. The lies and half-truths we are raised to believe only further the problem and stop people from seeing people in desperate need of help.

Hari stressed how what has been in place for so long has not worked and change is necessary to help a situation that continues to get worse. He spoke passionately and intelligently, conveying the severity of the situation, but also hope that things can get a lot better if people get behind the cause and push for change.

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