By Ann Chadwick
Chasing the Scream is an epic tale, with the narrative drive of a good thriller, Hooked UK speaks to its author, Johann Hari.
Drugs had always impacted on journalist Johann Hari’s personal life.
“One of my earliest memories was trying to wake up one of my relatives and not being able to. Growing up I had addiction in my family, cocaine addiction mainly, but other addictions as well, and I was in a relationship with a guy who had a really bad drugs problem.”
That, combined with the fact it’s over 100 years since the ‘war on drugs’ began, and is still raging, spurred him to travel 30,000 miles across eight countries and interview hundreds of people over three and a half years.
“I wanted to ask some questions for myself, I wanted to find out the answers. You know why did this start, why does it continue, what really causes drug misuse and drug addiction and what are the alternatives.”
Johann’s father was a cook turned bus driver, his mum worked in a refuge. Both were from poor families, his mum from the Scottish tenements, his dad, from a small farmhouse in the Swiss mountains. They met and settled in London, giving Johann a ‘comfortable childhood’. Gaining a position at Cambridge University, his politics were already entrenched thanks to his Grandma. His parents were both absent when he was young – his mother unwell, his dad lived abroad. It was the strong presence of his Grandma, with her Scottish working class identity, that informed his world view.
“She left school young couldn’t read that well, but she was a very compassionate caring person who just treated people around her really well.”
A friend of Russell Brand, he had a ‘few friends’ who believed in his book and supported him, alongside piecemeal work with Brand on The Trews alongside inputting into his Messiah Complex stand-up tour.
The book received glowing reviews from Elton John, Naom Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Stephen Fry. Its power however is far-removed from that celebrity world, it comes from the stories of lives on the edge – a transgender former drug dealer and gang leader in Brooklyn, a mentally ill addict who died from heat exposure while in custody in Arizona, a bereaved mother in Mexico.
There’s an anger that underlies Chasing the Scream, told through the multitude stories of injustice, racism, inequality and ignorance that fuel the drugs war.
“What I found was almost everything we’ve been told about this issue is wrong. Drugs aren’t what we think they are, drug use isn’t what we think it is, drug addiction isn’t what we think it is, and drug legalisation and the end of the drug war isn’t what we think it is. Just about everything we’ve been told is incorrect.”
For Johann it was the human stories that informed his conclusions, interviewing some of his subjects over three years.
“You really get to know these people when you do that process, you start to care about them…I think one of the problems with the drug war debate – not always but a lot of the time - is its way too abstract, we’ve all been talking in grand abstract principles about sobriety, and I just think it has no bearing on people’s lives. What I wanted to do is tell this story through what it’s like for real people who live those lives and whose lives have changed in one way or another by this decision to go to war against drugs.”
It took its toll, with many stories ‘upsetting’ and ‘devastating’ and a few times, he thought ‘just get me out of here’, particularly interviewing the families of people who had ‘disappeared’, caught up in Mexican drug cartels.
“There were moments I was scared, but I’ve been to scary places before like Iraq and the Congo, during the war there, and I think with all those things the way you regulate your fear is you have to remember why you’ve gone there, and if the reason you’ve gone there is a good enough reason … I think when it’s scary is when it’s a risk and it’s not worth a risk, but that never happened to me with this book, I always thought this is a story that has to be told.”
Alongside the human stories, Johann explored places – Switzerland, Canada, and Portugal – where liberalising measures transformed the outcome and lives of addicts. He’s used the story of Professor Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology, who undertook the ‘Rat Park’ experiments to great effect – in his book, and in a TED talk.
Alexander questioned previous experiments where rats in isolated cages were given two options: water, and water laced with heroin or cocaine.
“Alexander said, hang on a minute we’re putting the rats in an empty cage with nothing to do, let’s try this differently, so he built Rat Park. Rat Park is a lovely cage where a rat has everything it could possibly want – it has lots of food, and crucially loads of friends, lots of other rats. And in Rat Park they have both water bottles, the drugs bottle and the normal bottle and they all tried both but in Rat Park they didn’t like the drug water. Almost all of them overdosed in isolation and virtually none of them did in Rat Park”
It’s this that informs Johann’s belief that theories of addiction are wrong.
“The right wing theory is that addiction is a moral failing. The left wing theory of addiction, it’s a disease that hijacks your brain. Both wrong. What addiction actually is, is an adaptation to your environment. It’s not you, it’s not your brain, and it’s not your failings: it’s the cage you live in.”
Johann uses Vietnam vets as an analogy. Around 20% of American soldiers were using heroin during the war. The majority returned home, and stopped.
“You’ve come out of a terrifying environment, you could be killed any moment, you’re really miserable and made to do terrible things and you go back to your nice life in Kansas, or wherever it is, and you’re surrounded by your friends and family, and the people you love, you don’t want to be out of it all the time you know. It really forces us to change how we think about addiction in all sorts of startling ways.”
Another of his analogies is all those of us who have been given pain relief.
“If you got hit by a truck and broke you’re hip, you’d be taken to hospital, and given loads of diamorphine, which is heroin, albeit much better than the contaminated shit you get on the street. That kind of thing happens all over the world in hospitals all the time but if the old theory of addiction is right, when that treatment is over they should need heroin and they should go out and score on the streets - that virtually never happens. Patients don’t experience it as an addiction, or withdrawal, they just stop. Things like that tells us the prevailing idea of addiction we were taught at school can’t be right and there must be something else going on.”
He draws on the impact of nicotine patches.
“Pretty much everyone agrees tobacco is one of the most difficult, compelling substances you can use and when nicotine patches were invented – and we know the chemical addictive component of tobacco is nicotine – so when patches were invented in the early 90s there was this huge wave of optimism because people said, Oh My God, smokers will get all the drug they’re addicted to without the carcinogenic smoke, it will stop people smoking. Actually the best stats show only 17% were able to stop smoking. So that tells us 17% of addiction is the drug you get, 83% something else is going on. I’m not diminishing 17%, it’s a lot, if you could stop 17% of smokers you’d save hundreds of thousands of lives but it’s only a small part of the picture. The bigger picture is all this other stuff that’s driving addiction.”
For Johann it’s the cages we are in – personally yes, but society at large.
“If you think about how human beings evolved in hunter gatherer bands – a human being who was isolated on the Savannah of Africa was in terrible danger and would die. You were obviously very unsafe if you were separated from the tribe, you were in terrible trouble.
“There’s nothing in human evolution that prepares us for the way we live now. Particularly the degree of isolation we have now, if you think about how many people are totally cut off, living alone, you know, really isolated.”
“George Monbiot called this the Age of Loneliness and I think there’s something in that. Our connections are very unnatural connections, like internet connections, which are almost a parody of connection, everyone knows the difference between a Facebook friend and an actual friend, and we’ve moved much more to being Facebook friends with each other rather than actual friends with each other.”
Johann also blames capitalism.
“The nature of our economic system is something like drug addiction, we’re encouraged to constantly crave objects, through advertising through marketing through the whole way the machine works. All the pressure is on to just buy stuff and become obsessed with objects and gadgets, and clothes and things you buy, cars all of that shit, which we all know at some level is not where we can get meaning. We know if someone’s obsessed with those things there’s something wrong going on, and yet the whole economic system is geared towards that, so there’s constant propaganda to look not at each other, at the person next to you, but at something you can buy and sell. I think that’s partly the driver of why we’re so disconnected and cut off.”
“Why is there higher addiction on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow than Hampstead? It’s not because the people in Hampstead are better people, it’s because the people in the Easterhouse estate have been abandoned, cut off and made to feel purposeless.”
Johann uses the example of a scheme in Liverpool, which expanded heroin on prescription for addicts. There was a huge fall in crime, overdoses, and HIV transmissions.
“It was shut down by the Tory government, partly under pressure from the Americans, and you know suddenly huge numbers of people who were cut off from subscribed heroin died. No-one died over the 13 years (‘82-‘95) the programme ran. More than 450 people were on that programme for 13, then in the two years after it ended, 42 died and loads more got horribly injured - what’s called ‘drug war wounds’ from injecting not medically pure drugs but vile contaminated shit. Then you lose limbs, get horrific abscesses, terrible wounds. That doesn’t happen with drugs in a clinical setting, that’s all a result of drugs being illegal and criminalised.”
He hailed the work of a heroin clinic in Geneva, Switzerland, where alongside regular prescriptions, addicts were helped into jobs.
“The chaos of street addiction stops so you’re not spending your time prostituting yourself or stealing in order to get your next fix, the kind of chaos of it comes to a halt, you’ve got subsidised housing, you’ve got a job, your life calms down. Then you start to put your life together. There’s got to be things in your life you want to do and you don’t want to be out of it all the time, you know that’s the way to do it.”
Ultimately, Johann wants societal, political change, or at least to trigger debate. He gives Portugal as an example of the success of decriminalisation.
“In the year 2000, 1% of the population in Portugal was addicted to heroin, it was crazy.” Politicians agreed to adhere to the recommendations of a scientific panel of doctors. “They said decriminalise everything – all drugs – and crucially transfer all the money we used to spend on arresting drug addicts, imprisoning drug addicts - all of that - into really good drug treatments and actually that’s partly rehab but actually just as much, if not more, supporting addicts in the community. So things like giving them subsidized jobs, giving them micro loans to set up businesses together, making sure they’ve got homes and jobs and people to turn to and support and love. And 15 years on the results are in and it’s kind of incredible, everyone agrees that addiction is down, injection drug use has fallen by 50% which is kind of mind blowing.”
He believes the evidence is enough to act. That the alternatives to ‘war’ on drugs work. “We can chose them if we want to. None of this has to happen, there are some tragedies there’s nothing you can do about: this is not one of them.”
It is, he says, the cage we live in.
“I’m a huge admirer of the 12 steps programme, but … it encourages people to look at their individual responsibility, although this is important, collective responsibility is even more important. Imagine saying to the rats in the isolated cage in the first experiment, you’ve got to do an inventory of all your flaws? Actually, it’s much more the cage they’re in, it’s much more their environment. Individual responsibility is hugely important – I have friends and relatives who have been saved by the 12 step programme and feel very strongly - but I would argue to think about it in a slightly different way.”
Johann had his own brush with addiction, with Provigil, a prescription drug he bought online.
“What I took from it personally is the thing that will help you overcome your addiction impulses is your strong human connections. To bind yourself to the people around you, strengthen your loving bonds. When you feel bad go to the people you love, physically be with them and sit with them.
“I think you know I said in the book the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, its connection. The more I learned about addiction the more I learned about the value of it. For instance with my ex-boyfriend who had, and has a bad crack and heroin problem, you know at times I could be very judgemental of him and when I came back from this journey and I saw him and I’d learned all this, you know we’re taught by the culture – to threaten to cut addicts off – and that dreadful American TV programme where they get family and friends together and threaten them if they don’t go to rehab and stop using drugs - shun them and cut them off. That’s the logic of the drug war applied to people’s private lives.
“What I resolved to think is the exact opposite, I make sure the addicts in my life know I will never cut them off, and I will never shun them, if they ever want to sit with me they can always do that and I will always love them and I’ll always be connected to them and I’ll never abandon them, and I love them whether they stop or they don’t. And I hope they stop because it will be better for them, but I will love them whether they do or not. And I think that’s the most important thing for people who have addicts in their lives. For God’s sake don’t shun them, don’t cut them off, isolation and loneliness are drivers of addiction, if you make them more isolated and more lonely that will do the opposite of help. They need to know that you love them unconditionally.
“For a hundred years we’ve been singing war songs to addicts, we should have been singing love songs to them.”