Interview with Johann Hari : The War on Drugs does not work and his great new book












Chasing The Scream is a timely book.


Author Johann Hari has written a brilliant and readable account of the disastrous war on drugs that has dominated politics and the streets for a century and failed utterly and miserably.


In the book he interviews people from all sides of the battlefield and looks at the wrecked lives and failed policies that have wreaked havoc on the population that continues to take drugs anyway.


It’s time we got honest about drugs.


Nearly everybody takes them/has taken them and yet there is this unspoken silence or an awkward fumbling fudge about drugs and drug law in the media and  with the pow(d)ers that be.


Politicians pretend that we are in this phoney war- yelling the prepostroulsy titled War On Drugs complete with its big Hollywood voice out from battlements lke Noah whilst trillions are made in one of the world biggest industries.


That is some serious disconnect.


The War On Drugs is one of those catchall phrases that sits well in tabloids and election campaigns but makes no sense in the real world. A recent invention- it has failed miserably and its motives are questionable and former journalsit Johann Hari details all this beautifully in his new book.


The book is a gripping and detailed read compiling three years of extensive interviews into a powerful case against the current drug policy. In the interview Johann Hari talks fluently and fast about the topic with the enthusiasm and in depth knowledge of someone who is fully immersed in the subject. He doesn’t even flinch when he details and apologises for his own career car crash when the former darling of the firebrand left wing press with his weekly column was suspended from The Independent following charges of plagiarism and was separately accused of making malicious edits of several of his critics’ Wikipedia pages under a pseudonym.


Compared to what the Murdoch empire was up to at the same time it seems pretty small fry but contravenes the code and he is prepared to take full responsibility for his actions. Thankfully he didn’t disappear and spent his time and energy writing this key book.


Johann : What I did was not trivial. It was obviously wrong to say someone said something that was taken from somewhere else. I deeply regret doing it and I apologise again.  With this new book you can go to the website and people can follow the 400 quotes I used and you can hear the recorded quotes and people can be completely confident that I have not done what I did years ago and they can know that these quotes are genuine and sourced by me and that’s important.’


LTW : I see you are sat there with your own current drug of choice, a whopping great caffeine fix.



Johann : I’m not a morning person! I think the biggest division in the human race is whether you are a morning or a night person.  I have to have caffeine running in my veins on a drip if I am to be socially respectable!


LTW : Where did your interest in drugs start?


Johann :  One of my earliest memories of drugs was an addiction in my family. One of my early memories was trying to wake up a relative and not being able to. There was a cocaine addiction in the family. Tragically the drug that I used more than any other apart from anti depressants was the most square and swottish of them all  and one which makes you work harder! it was a narcolepsy drug and I remember reading an article about it and I wanted to work harder so I took it. Surprisingly, ha, a narcolepsy drug makes you not sleep! if was a more tragically, swottish drug in that respect I’ve yet to find it.


LTW : I often wondered if the drugs that make you work harder are legal and the ones that get in the way of capitalism are banned…


Johann :   There might be something in that but it’s not true of alcohol I suppose. What I argue in the book is that there were other factors going on. I was surprised by how deep and how massive these are and one of the biggest reasons that drugs were banned was that the racial minorities were taking them. It’s really fascinating and even true of alcohol prohibition. Alcohol was there from the start of the USA when George Washington gave out whisky rations to people and then alcohol got banned durung prohibtion when it was associated with the Irish and Italians coming in – at the time they were regarded as not white which seems weird now.


LTW : Billie Holliday is one of the key stories in your book





Johann : One of the key stories in my book is of Billie Holiday and the way they destroyed her which tells this thinking so clearly. The book is about people. I wanted the book to be as readable as possible. I didn’t want to dump facts on the readers. I wanted stories of human beings like Billie Holliday which shows the racism of the drug war in the United States and the UK and all over the world.

I spoke to a lot of people and everyone who knew her that was still alive told me the same thing. The story in the Julia Blackburn autobiography, With Billie, tells of how the Federal Bureau Of Narcotics set out to destroy her. The night after Billie Holliday had sung Strange Fruit- that powerful song about the lynchings she received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Harry Anslinger was the  most influential person there and he had this mind set. He had just been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics which was about to be shut down and Anslinger was the  first person to use the phrase ‘war on drugs in the 1930s’ He had taken over this bureau and he needed to create a reason for it to exist.


LTW : He invented this whole War On Drugs notion



Johann :  He launched the modern war on drugs by creating paranoias on cannabis that still run to this day in papers like the Daily Mail. It was him that created the myths and it was him that stalked Billie Holiday. He was a crazed racist. He used the ’n-word’ in official memos. His own senator said he should resign because of the way he worked. He was a fascinating, dark and complex figure who was in charge of the Bureau for 32 years.

He had already previously said publicly that he was not worried about cannabis and that it was not bad for people but to keep his department going and justify its existence he had to then make up the evils of cannabis by saying it’s worse than heroin. He used the story of the murderer Victor Lacatas and presented the story of this guy who had smoked cannabis and hacked his family to death with an axe and this became a massive story in the USA at the time – bigger than the Leah Betts story in the UK.

He used the story as a case to criminalise cannabis and why parents should be terrified of the drug. Years later this other guy went back to look at the case and found out that the family had mental health problems and that drugs were not really the cause. It was insulting to the family what Anslinger had said and the judge had not even mentioned cannabis in the original case and yet we still have laws in place created by that hysteria that he had created. Anslinger is the demoniser of modern cannabis and started the war on drugs. I looked at his archives and there were scientists writing to him saying we should have proper clinical trials first before you make these statements.


LTW: Why did they just use drugs to attack the minority groups?


Johann : They couldn’t say we just want to go against black people. They had to look for proxies and symbols to use against them. Black people were falsely accused. There was no evidence of black people using drugs any more than anyone else.

There was also a massive hysteria against the Chinese people at the time. The authorities wanted to forcibly relocate San Francisco’s Chinatown out of the city but when the courts said that this was unconstitutional and that they just can’t do that the authorities said we need to go after the opium dens instead and make life difficult for the Chinese. The drug laws were founded on racism and the need to stop the monorities and put them back in their place.

It was much easier to blame a white powder than use white power. What is important to understand and this runs right through to this day, is that 40 per cent of American men in prison, probation or on parole at any given time are black. It’s hard to get your head around this, the scale is immense. It’s a huge disparity.


LTW: Of course it wasn’t always like this


Johann : What fascinated me is to ask what happened when drugs were legal. Until they were banned in 1924 drugs were actually legal- you could buy a heroin legally, a vast majority of people would buy drugs from the local pharmacy. Cocaine was in tea-  there was different  opiates for sale like in Mrs Winslows Soothing Syrup- imagine tixylix with opiates in it and you could buy this over the counter. What’s important to understand is that a vast majority of addicts had jobs and to be an addict was no more or less important or a big deal than anyone else. They had stable lives and they would buy their drugs cheaply.

Henry Smith Williams looked at when drugs were not banned and the addiction rate was lower, addicts had these stable lives and no crime was involved but when drugs were banned immediately it was a disaster. An entire army of drug dealers sprung up who started to kill each other, people got caught in the crossfire and the cost of drugs went up. People who could afford addiction before had to turn to crime, woman turned to prostitution and men stole and the drugs become more dangerous because, amazingly, criminals sell shitty products because there is no one to check for contamination. You suddenly have a whole wave of things happening. And it’s a modern thing – it’s actually an anomaly throughout history where people have been able to get intoxicants, only in this century were these things banned.


LTW : a modern phenonomon…


Johann : To get intoxicated is so deep in human nature. There has never been a human society with no intoxication. Mike Jay is a very good writer on this. There is no record of a human society without people getting fucked up. The desire to get out of it is the 4th basic human instinct after eating, fucking and water. 

One of best people to speak about this is Ronald K Siegull who was the adviser to several US presidents and spent 30 years figuring out what happens when drugs are given to animals. There was the experiment with mongooses eating marijuana. He was actually accused and they said ‘what the fuck are you doing’ and he said ‘studying mongooses when they get stoned’ and they said that it the shittiest excuse ever and the police arrested him! He said drugs are rife in the animal kingdom like with cat nip where a cat gets drunk, elephants love getting drunk and smashing shit up. There is a whole range of animals getting stoned – bees get drunk on nectar and fly chaotically,  hummingbirds get drunk on berries.

Ronald K Siegul experiment on the mongooses was fascinating. He put a hallucinogenic plant in the pen and they ignored it but when the mongoose’s partner died the other mongoose ate the whole plant because he was so upset and wanted to get out of it.

The whole drug thing is farcical- the official UN slogan of ‘a drug free world- we can do it’ it’s  preposterous, utopian and absurd – intoxication is universal – and for a vast majority of people it’s harmless. UN drug control says 90 per cent of drug use is not problematic but that is not what we are told officially where a drug addict is painted as being in the gutter. It would be like if the only picture of an alcohol drinker was a homeless, chronic, alcoholic.

People who take drugs people don’t want to talk about drug use because of the risk of being arrested, or employers finding out- so people wont talk about it, it’s the licensing affect of prohibition- normal drug use is driven into silence and we are given a massively distorted picture of drug use and what it means.



LTW : Its an industry of lies



Johann : The story we have been told about addiction for 100 years is just not true.

There is a completely different scientific explanation.

There is a physical component to addiction but it is a minor aspect of it. A vast majority of people say drugs cause addiction but if we are all locked in a room together and used crack for 21 days – and there are lots of powerful physical hooks in crack – by day 21 our bodies would physically crack therefore we would be addicted and that is what we think addiction is but reality is different.

The way that the theory has been established is through experiments where we put a rat in a cage with two water bottles- one is full of water and the other is laced with heroin and the rat in the cage with the druggy liquid always prefers the drugged water and kills itself quickly.

In 1970 Bruce Alexander – a professor in Vancouver said if you put a rat in an empty cage it will take drugs because there is nothing else to do. So he built a rat park full of fun things to do and and the same with the other cage where they have the drug bottle. What he found was that some liked the bottle and some used it a small bit but non ever overdosed. They all had all they wanted and a regulated attitude towards drugs.  This is totally important and applied to humans as well and that it tells us that the left wing theory that addiction is a disease and the right wing theory that it’s a moral thing are both wrong.


It’s more of an adaptation to an enviroment.


It’s not you.


It’s the cage you live in and he explained that really well.


Where my mum came from, in Easterhouse near Glasgow, you have to ask why is there higher drug addiction there than in a nice bit of north London. Easterhouse is like the original rat cage in the experiment and north London is like the rat park. And it proves we are missing the point and we have to change the enviroment.


The human example of what happened in Vietnam is important as well.  20 per cent of the American soldiers there were using heroin. Their superiors at the time were really worried about thousands of drug addicts on the streets back home after the war  but many of them stopped using drugs when they returned to normality.

It’s important to understand that we have this idea that partying too hard causes addiction- you can use drugs heavily but have a happy life and not be out of it all the time

One other example of the myth of addiction is if you break your hip and go to hospital and get loads of diamorphine which is a stronger form of pain killer than heroin -and if the theory that using drugs is true that should make you addicted but when you leave hospital it does not happen.

The disconnection comes from isolation, internal pain, childhood trauma and enviroment-those are the drivers of addiction. Once you understand that it makes sense- you have to deal with the isolation and pain and not with the chemicals.

The war on drugs just makes addiction worse.


LTW : There are some examples in the book of authorities waking up.


Johann : 15 years ago Portugal had a massive drug problem. Lots of people were addicted to heroin. They had tried the American way- the war on drugs and to get tough and it wasn’t working and then they decided to do something really different. The main political parties got together with the scientists and agreed to do whatever plan they came up with and took the politics out of it. Incredibly when the decision was made to decriminalise everything from cannabis to crack and that no-one will be punished for using and possessing drugs and they all agreed to try this. The crucial next step was to take all the money they used to spend on harassing drug users and to spend it all on other things like really good help and support for addicts and not only for rehab- but for therapy and drugs and loans to set up small businesses for the addicts and help to run them.

They also instigated really honest drug education talks and support for users and advice for them on the safety of drugs, like what to do when feeling ill. What was extraordinary was that whilst drug use may have gone up slightly by 7 per cent- and that was maybe because people were now being more honest about it but addiction itself has significantly fallen and injecting dugs halved- which is mind blowing. HIV and overdoses were down in drug users. I interviewed the top cop in Portugal and he said that at the time he had said that the new policy would be a disaster but he now says that everything that he said would happen didn’t happen and everything the other side said did happen and he regretted arresting drug users and hoped the rest of the world would use their example.


LTW : Your book argues that the war on drugs makes the situation far worse…



Johann :  Oddbins don’t blow up Tesco for selling alcohol but if you have a banned substance and rivals you can’t ring up the police and you have to be violent to defend your property. You have to be dealing retaliation so that no one will fuck with. Prohibition creates a culture of terror and you have to up the ante. Anything that says you show a moment of weakness and you are not a terrifying gangster then your rivals will fucking destroy you. In Mexico the town that is one of the main entry points for drugs into the United States has been completely destroyed by drug war violence. It’s mind blowing when you go there and people are so terrified and the police work for the cartels and do some the executions for the drug gangs. The situation is so fucked up and weird that these kids decided to go the murder scenes dressed as angels and paint themslves silver and stand on stools to look 8 foot tall and hold signs with ‘corrupt police god is watching over you’ on them and take photos of themsevles as a weird statement.

There is now the culture of fear there. If you are the guy who does something even more disgusting then you are more powerful. You kill the wives of the other gang, then other gang kills your pregnant wives and puts it on youtube to get the competitive advantage so then you cut off their faces and stick them on footballs and send them to rival  gangs and then you have the competitive advantage- it just gets really out of control.


LTW : Similar to prohibtion creating the gangsters?


Johann : Alcohol prohibition created Al Capone and drug prohibition has created the Zeta and the Crips and Bloods. The Zetas came into existence when the Americans  decided to create an elite anti drugs squad like the SAS and they spent a fortune training them up in America and gave them loads of money and arms and the3n they went back home and defected and broke away to be a drug gang themselves.


One thing I wanted to do with the book is to tell the story of drugs through individuals whose lives been changed and to try and understand the story on a human level from all these different types of people. Like the story of President Mujica the left wing president of Uruguay. Before he got into power the dictatorship and kept him at the bottom of a well for two years and when he was elected president he changed a lot of things including legalising marijuana. He said we have been trying the drug war for 100 years, and no one can say we have not given it a fair shot and but it has failed in all of its goals. And his new policy worked and the same in Switzerland and other places that have dared to change.


The hypocrisy of it all is mind blowing. It  goes back to the inequality of the drug law which if upheld would mean that half the population in the UK have broken the drug law and you can’t put half the population of the UK in prison. So you go after easy pickings like the groups despised by the police. It’s like the rookie white police officer in the States who said to his boss ‘why do we only go to black neighbourhoods to arrest people’ and his boss said if we got to white neighbourhoods it’s all journalists and judges and that would be a problem for us. Drugs are effectively decriminalised for rich white people.


It can change, in 1969 drag queens rioted outside the Stonewall inn and said fuck this we are not going to take this any more and if you had said at the time that in 50 years from now you would have gay marriage that would have been inconceivable but some of those people have lived to have seen his…






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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. addiction is a process. the first to go is the spiritual, second is the mental and third the physical. the first we treat is the physical, the
    second the mental{stinking thinking} and the last the spiritual{the hole in the middle soul} which is a lack of self love.

    thank you I am a grateful recovering alcoholic/addict and have been one day at a time for almost thirty years and have had the blessing to be a alcohol/drug/gambling counselor for 28 years.


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