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The book, ‘Chasing the Scream’ by Johann Hari, is being promoted world-wide by a strong pro-drug lobby. This article is a snapshot of a more detailed critique being published in the ‘Quadrant’ in November. Those who have the health and well-being of our communities (and especially our emerging generations) will do well to read this and the complete article. They will then be better positioned to judge for themselves the best course of future action we need to take to prevent illicit drugs from spreading.

Some quotes from the Critique article are:

“Hari’s approach is not limited to the underhanded titling all illicit drug policy ‘a war on drugs’, but rather a far more explicit, creative rewriting of drug policy history, manufacturing an illusion that the historic international agreements prohibiting the recreational use of opium, heroin and cocaine in 1912 and of cannabis in 1925 are really all the work of one dishonest US bureaucrat, Harry Anslinger. 

That Anslinger led the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 through to 1962, commencing years after these agreements were established, does not deter Hari from rearranging history to suit his thesis that ‘Anslinger treacherously beguiled and bewitched the entire world into prohibiting the very drugs which Hari believes are largely beneficial with significantly less harm than alcohol or tobacco’.

To make this thesis work Hari has to creatively unhinge his creative assertions from verifiable fact, fact that is eminently verifiable (given every Anslinger file from his 32 years at the Bureau is still archived at Pennsylvania State University). 

Hari’s treatment of Anslinger commences with, “From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position.  A war on narcotics alone—cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914—wasn’t enough.  They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs.  He needed more.” 

Such a creative rearrangement of history ignores the fact that Anslinger, when commencing his work in 1930 at the Bureau, did everything he could to avoid the public hue and cry led by various newspapers and legislators in the Southwest regarding the use and effects of marijuana.  Anslinger maintained that cannabis was not being imported as was opium or cocaine, but rather domestically grown, and should therefore be controlled by each State rather than the Federal Government’s 1914 Harrison Act.  It was not until 1937 that Anslinger begrudgingly acceded to pressure, a very different reality to Hari’s inversion of facts to suit his emotionally appealing but fanciful polemic which carefully avoids the reality of how and why these prohibitions were initially instituted.

Along with previous legalisation apologists, Hari ridicules Anslinger’s views concerning cannabis harms, particularly his promotion of cannabis as a cause of drug-related violence and madness.  Despite the lampooning of the lobby there is now a copious science indicating a dose-response relationship between cannabis and psychosis with a February 2015 Lancet study finding that daily users of high THC cannabis have a fivefold risk of psychosis.  Previous studies had indicated a doubling of psychosis risk from lower THC cannabis use. 

Studies in 2003 by Niveau & Dang and in 2007 by Howard & Menkes have investigated the effect of cannabis on a particular neural mechanism controlling impulse and found a connection with violence and aggression.  It stands to reason that the lowering of inhibitions via intoxication will create a greater expression of violence in those so predisposed, whether by alcohol or cannabis.  In the Geneva Convention discussions of 1925, the Egyptian delegate M. El Guindy implored the prohibiting of cannabis on the basis of ‘madness’ associated with its use, but also that its intoxication ‘takes a violent form in persons of violent character.’   Contrary to Hari’s assertions, Anslinger was never alone in linking violence and madness with cannabis use and modern science exposes Hari’s scorn. 

There are significant lessons that can be drawn from the elevated use of drugs due to their legality.  Clearly, a society can ill-afford any drug use becoming entrenched since reversing widespread use and acceptance comes at an exorbitant cost.  Also, our experience with tobacco teaches that educating the public about its real harms has inevitably caused an increased disapproval of tobacco users, which has been a factor in reducing use.  Hari appears to recognise this when he states that ‘As a result of this policy where tobacco is legal but increasingly socially disapproved of, cigarette smoking has fallen dramatically.”  He fails to recognise the contradiction, though, between the positive impact of what is effectively a stigmatisation of tobacco users, and his advocacy for the removal of any stigma from illicit drug use.  Little does he seem to recognise as an apologist for illicit drugs that there inevitably will be a stigma on any activity that presents gratuitous harms to any community, and it is a stigmatisation which works to stifle recruitment of new users and the further expansion of drug use.  Hari cannot have it both ways.

There is another lesson to be drawn from tobacco use where the harms have been advertised and are so well known.  Despite the millions put into prevention and education, the uptake by teens and early-twenty year olds of such a senseless habit still continues.  With no more glamorous advertising to sell the product, tobacco companies still continue due to current users recruiting new users.  All this with a legal product as irrational as heroin.  It is therefore not the prohibition of the illicit drugs that chiefly drives their expansion, as Hari alleges, because as with tobacco, users recruit new users for reasons other than supporting their own habit”. 

Jo Baxter 
Vice President World Federation Against Drugs
Executive Director, Drug Free Australia