If asked who is the most discriminated group in America, answers would probably range along the lines of: Blacks, Gays, Women, Muslims, Republicans. Yet I’d argue a different subset of the population is by far the most discriminated group, and it’s those who partake in illegal drugs. By illegal drugs I’m talking schedule 1 and 2 substances that the DEA will lock you up if you’re found to be in possession of (though Marijuana is quickly falling out of this category).
Indeed, there’s no place in civilized society for a drug user. There are literally tests conducted by employers to see if individuals fall into this undesirable subset of society. If caught with drugs, an individual faces jail-time, having their children taken away, shamed, and basically having their lives ruined.
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari delivers a deep dive analysis of the MADNESS of the War on Drugs as well as giving a hard look at the incorrect prejudices about drug users.
The war on drugs has always stood out to me as something terribly wrong with the world. No doubt my libertarian father played a huge role in guiding my thought process, but my own independent analysis has fueled a passionate disgust against the drug war. In elementary school I published a brief letter to a local newspaper saying something like, “I’m 10 years old and I think drugs are bad, but it’s immoral and wasteful to throw people in jail who use them.” Still makes sense to me as a grownup.
Since then, I’ve continued being an enthusiastic supporter of drug legalization. I’ve published a couple other letters, read countless horrifying articles, and gotten into a couple feisty facebook debates (which I always win!). Suffice to say, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable on the subject.
Chasing the Scream reignited my passion with a recap of the author’s long journey around the world where he interviews dozens of people representing all perspectives of the discussion. Fair warning, this is not a pretty picture. This book took me abnormally long to finish simply because parts of it were quite upsetting and I needed breaks. Hearing about Billie Holiday’s troubled life and how the drug war was initiated by a disturbed man named Harry Anslinger often left me emotionally drained.
What surprised me most was how many reasons the author offered to legalize drugs that I was unfamiliar with. Going into the book, here were my basic reasons for legalization:
- Outlawing drugs creates a black market where violent gangs thrive (Walmart doesn’t conduct drive by shootings against Target as they compete for beer sales)
- Making drugs illegal drives up the price of drugs, ultimately forcing addicts into illegal activities to maintain their habits (Conservative estimates put 50% of theft is connected to drug addicts unable to maintain their expensive habits. Other estimates as high as 85%).
- Drugs are more dangerous illegal than legal (Nobody buys Coronas and unexpectedly gets Tequila mixed with rat poison).
- Cost to fight the war on drugs is tremendous, over $40 billion dollars a year.
- It violates the basic moral principle of “live and let live.” If someone isn’t harming anyone else, then government and society have no business harassing them.
Yet this book uncovered several other arguments I had not considered. Without getting too into the details here are a few:
- By far my biggest revelation was the overrated harmfulness of illegal drugs. If you read nothing further on this post please consider reviewing this article and note the chart which ranks drug harmfulness. The author of this study, Dr. David Nutt former advisory to the British Ministry of Defence, was fired after publishing this analysis.
- A United Nations Study said that roughly 90% of people who use drugs, do not get addicted to them.
- Note these two above points alone would probably change most people’s perception of the sanity of the drug war. Drugs are not as harmful as alcohol, and most people that use drugs don’t end up on the street or as zombie addicts.
- Drugs are always more potent illegal than legal. This was evident in prohibition where beer essentially disappeared for whisky and other potent drinks. This means that while drugs are illegal, users are offered only only drugs with the highest potency. It’s like a bar that only serves drinks with an alcohol content over 40% (has anyone ever heard of the prohibition popular drink White Lightening?).
- The annual casualties caused directly by the war on drugs is estimated at over 30,000. That’s ten 9/11’s per year.
- Chemical addiction is not what we think, particularly with regards to heroin. What we have been taught as “obvious” is far from settled science. Here’s a short video explaining the misconception with heroin, from one of my favorite youtube channels (EDIT: I didn’t even realize that this video was actually inspired by the book until I was typing this up. I knew of this video and channel long before the book — small world).
- In Liverpool during the 90’s, a doctor elected to give out clean heroin for free. During that time, none of his patients died. When the policy was cut, several of his patients died within a few years. Heroine’s dangers are primarily street related as people have incredibly harmful drugs distributed.
- Psychedelics (for the sake of simplicity lets assume this is just LSD, Mushrooms and Ecstasy) have tremendously positive benefits that are being ignored. Keep in mind the harmfulness of these is at the bottom of the above chart.
- A study from Jons Hopkins University that suggests that our brains are naturally wired for mystical experiences provided by psilocybin mushrooms (the least harmful drug on the chart above).
- I followed up with my own research on this where Jons Hopkins has preliminary results showing psilocybin mushrooms can lead to many positive changes including potentially 80% reduction in smoking (see Ted Talks discussion here).
- Yet another study that showed tremendous improvement on folks dealing with depression on this Ted Talks.
- Ecstasy has tremendous potential to deal with PTSD see short video here.
There were many more stories and interviews that will feverishly compel the reader to stand up and stop the madness, even if they have no interest in doing drugs themselves. The author highlights all of the logical points but also appeals to people’s emotional concerns illustrating how legalization is the compassionate and strategic choice for keeping everyone, including children, safer.
One other part of the book that stood out was when the author interviewed a doctor who was one of the leading “experts” for maintaining the war on drugs for the UN. The author describes their encounter as civil. When the author presented some of the sensible arguments for legalizing drugs, the doctor seemed thoughtful, and eventually admitted he had not thought of such questions, so he obviously didn’t have an answer. Considering the magnitude of this — a man who is LEADING the charge for the continuation of the war on drugs, can’t even ATTEMPT to defend itself in a friendly conversation with a reporter. This is a common event. Those that favor the drug war, often haven’t thought about it beyond, “Drugs are bad. Of course they should be illegal. Having them sold in stores is crazy!” And that’s the end of the rationale.
A similar personal story occurred with my father. As a local political activist, he was often invited to debates. Once he was invited to UC San Diego to debate the topic of drug legalization. His opponent was a veteran police sergeant and stood as a formidable “street credentials” contrasted with my dad simply being a regular citizen. However, the sergeant’s opening statement was, “the drug war is a complete waste of time, anyone who says we can win the war on drugs is full of shit.” The university had just erroneously assumed anyone in law enforcement would be in favor of the war on drugs, and mistakenly booked someone to represent a side which they vehemently felt the exact opposite of (the result turned into a 90 minute seminar where my dad and his new best friend got to rant and rave on together on all the harm the war on drugs entails).
It’s truly hard to find people willing to publicly argue in favor of the drug war in an structured debate because it’s an incredibly difficult task. Any rational discussion invariably leads to the undeniable conclusion that the war on drugs does tremendously more harm than good.
I personally cannot think of a political issue where the mainstream perception is so misguided, while such a preponderance of evidence exists to reverse the policy. During the 2016 USA presidential campaign, the only legalization discussed was tepid steps towards marijuana legalization. The idea of legalizing ecstasy, LSD, or Psilocybin mushrooms is never discussed despite them being schedule 1 substances and colossally less dangerous than alcohol.
Perhaps my personal biggest disappointment with Barack Obama was his failure to enact significant change with the war on drugs. Before taking office he said, “the war on drugs has been an utter failure.” He has inferred he has tried every drug out there. Yet besides commuting only a few outrageous sentences (with some being more for stats than real change), Obama failed to even scratch the service in rolling back all the harm the war on drugs imposes.
It’s easy to think about this senseless war and become depressed, yet the author provides an inspiring comparison for hope. There’s some definite similarities to the war on drugs and discrimination against homosexuals (the author himself is gay). In 1952 when Alan Turing, one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century, admitting to homosexual activities, he faced jail-time. Today, the thought of imprisoning people for being gay is mind-boggling. By most measures, gays have won their fight for legal equality (even muttering an anti-gay comment is now met with vicious public outcry).
For decades, the public has been lied to that drug users are maniacs that are a menace to society and must be imprisoned for everyone’s safety. This is completely false just like all gays need not be imprisoned or any other peaceful people. Marijuana is starting to get folks to come out more. Here’s yet another amusing Ted Talk where a gay pot using man parallels the similar struggles. Yet there’s still plenty of other drug users who have to hide in the shadows for fear of persecution of their peaceful habits.
Like the social crusades previously waged by gays, blacks, women, and other minorities, individuals against the war on drugs must not be deterred by their slow march towards victory. The truth is on their side, while their oppressors depend on lies and deceit to maintain their war of misery. My favorite quote from Martin Luther King JR. is, “No lie can live forever.” Hopefully as time progresses and books like Chasing The Scream continue to be read, the truth will overtake the lies and we can see an end to the staggeringly senseless war on drugs.