John Harris

Journalist & Author

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari review – taking on the war on drugs

A convincing, if flawed, exploration of the futilities and stupidities of draconian drug laws

Around halfway through Johann Hari’s new book, he recalls visiting a conference in Sweden organised by the World Federation Against Drugs – as its own blurb puts it, “a multilateral community of non-governmental organisations and individuals” which rather optimistically claims to “work for a drug-free world”. The WFAD’s position on the so-called “war on drugs” is the opposite of Hari’s: he favours liberalisation and decriminalisation, the Federation support prohibition. In that sense, his visit to Stockholm is a behind-enemy-lines exercise that you would have thought would produce no end of anecdotes.

But no: oddly, the whole trip is over and done with in five brisk paragraphs. Moreover, though Hari credits the conference’s keynote speaker, Robert DuPont, with being “the man who created many of the metaphors that help us to understand drugs today”, an interview with him results in quotes that run to a mere 52 words. Hari describes DuPont, the first director of the US government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, delivering “the knockout speech” of the Swedish event, “summing up a conference that warned that chemicals can hijack your brain and cause chemical slavery”. One hundred and seventy pages later, this oration is referenced in the book’s extensive notes. “Du Pont himself did not use the imagery of hijacking or chemical slavery in his speech, and does not like these metaphors,” Hari admits, “but they recurred at the conference many times.”

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