Chasing the Scream

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is a book by English writer and journalist Johann Hari examining the history and impact of drug criminalisation, collectively known as "the War on Drugs." The book was published simultaneously in the United Kingdom and United States in January 2015.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
Chasing the scream cover UK.jpg
cover of U.K. edition
AuthorJohann Hari
CountryUnited Kingdom
United States
SubjectDrug control, drug trafficking
Publication date
15 January 2015 (U.K.)
20 January 2015 (U.S.)
Media typePrint (Hardback)
Pages389 pages
LC ClassHV5825.H234

Background and summaryEdit

In January 2012, Hari announced on his website that he was writing his first book, a study of the "war on drugs."[1]

The release of the book coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in the United States, which was the world's first drug control legislation when it passed in December 1914. In Chasing the Scream, Hari writes that two global wars began in 1914: World War I, which lasted four years, and the war on drugs, which is ongoing.[2]

In the introduction to the book, Hari writes that one of his first memories was of trying and failing to wake up a relative from a "drugged slump," and that he has always felt "oddly drawn to addicts and recovering addicts—they feel like my tribe, my group, my people." He also discusses his history of abusing anti-narcolepsy medication, a class of prescription drugs sometimes taken by people without the disease in order to stay alert.[3][4]

Hari questions whether or not he is an addict and decides to go searching for answers to questions he has. "Why did the drug war start, and why does it continue? Why can some people use drugs without any problems, while others can't? What really causes addiction? What happens if you choose a radically different policy?"[3]

Hari writes that he spent the next three years in search of answers, traveling across nine countries (United States, Canada, Great Britain, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Uruguay and Vietnam).[5][6]

He profiles early figures in the drug war like jazz musician Billie Holiday, a long-time heroin addict; racketeer Arnold Rothstein, an early drug trafficker; and Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (who himself had a daily morphine habit).[7][8]

He also interviews drug addicts, dealers, police and lawmakers today, as well as scientists, drug addiction specialists and drug reform advocates like Danny Kushlick and Steve Rolles, as well as João Goulão, a doctor who has helped steer Portugal's drug policy.[9][10]

One of his interviewees is Bruce K. Alexander, the researcher behind the "Rat Park" drug addiction experiments done in the 1970s. Alexander's hypothesis is that drugs themselves do not cause addiction, which is largely in contrast to current popular beliefs about drugs and drug addiction.

Hari writes, “Many of our most basic assumptions about this subject are wrong. Drugs are not what we think they are. Drug addiction is not what we have been told it is. The drug war is not what our politicians have sold it as for one hundred years and counting.”[11]

Source documentationEdit

An introductory page of Chasing the Scream states that audio files of all quotes in the book from Hari's interviews are available online at the book's official website.[12] On the site, it states that there are more than 400 quotes spoken to Hari appearing in the book: "To be as transparent as possible, they are posted on this website – so as you read the book, you can listen the voices of the people in it, as they tell their stories for themselves."[13] The book also includes 60 pages of explanatory notes on sources and interviews.[14]

The website includes a section devoted to questions and corrections, with a note from Hari asking readers to submit any factual errors in the book to be corrected "for future editions and for the record." This section also includes a few transcription errors from recorded interviews that were not noticed until after publication; for example, a quote from Bruce K. Alexander saying "...learning to deal with the modern age” was incorrectly transcribed and printed in the book as "...learning to live with the modern age."[15] Author and anti-plagiarism campaigner Jeremy Duns accused Hari of inaccuracy in some of his quotations, claiming that Hari had "twisted the truth here because it made his narrative cleaner".[16]

Book receptionEdit

Critical responseEdit

Chasing the Scream has received mostly positive reviews from critics and journalists.

Kate Tuttle of the Boston Globe called it a "passionate, timely book" and that through reading the stories of Hari's interview subjects, including drug addicts, drug dealers, scientists and politicians, "their combined testimony forms a convincing brief that drug prohibition may have spawned as much crime, violence, and heartache as drug use ever did."[9]

Reviewer Nick Romeo of The Christian Science Monitor wrote a lengthy synopsis on Chasing the Scream, analysing the book's presentation of the history of drug criminalisation, its racial aspects, and scientific data concerning addiction. Romeo wrote of Hari, "His reporting is balanced and comprehensive; he interviews police and prisoners, addicts and dealers, politicians and activists. He also delves into different historical periods as case studies on the costs and benefits of the drug war. His book should be required reading for anyone involved in the drug war, and a glance at the national budget shows that anyone who pays taxes is involved in the drug war."[17]

Ed Vulliamy called the book a "righteous assault" and a "long-awaited history" on the war on drugs, "which imprisons millions and persecutes more." He was critical that the book omitted two crucial aspects of the situation – the first being how the "war" is in reality one waged against addicts and not those who financially profit from drugs, and the second concerning details of how legalisation of drugs would work in practicality. Vulliamy concluded that omission of these aspects does not detract "from the book’s argument, or the righteous movement of which Hari is an estimable spokesman." He noted the author's 2011 scandal, writing that a "shamed" Hari left to dedicate himself to documenting the war on drugs and that Chasing the Scream "is the prodigal fruit of that work, and with it redemption, if that was needed."[18]

In his review for The Guardian, John Harris praised parts of the book but was negative overall. He wrote, that although the work is a "powerful contribution to an urgent debate" on drug policy, Hari employs a "gauche journalistic equivalent of the narrative voice found in Mills & Boon novels." Harris also questioned why "a mere 52 words" are printed from Hari's interview with Dr. Robert DuPont, the first director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and the keynote speaker at a World Federation Against Drugs conference Hari attended.[14] Harris also admitted Hari's past record presents a challenge to reviewers, and made him more skeptical over things such as the DuPont interview, writing, "though it might be nice to set aside the events of 2011 and allow him a fresh start, his misdemeanours inevitably colour your experience of the book."[14]

Hugo Rifkind wrote in his review for The Times that it is "tempting, albeit petty, to read Chasing the Scream less as a book and more as an act of rehabilitation." Rifkind ultimately called it "thoughtful, thorough and questing, and full of fresh and genuine reportage about aspects of the drug economy."[19]

Kirkus Reviews praised the book, calling Hari "a sharp judge of character" and that the book is "a compassionate and humane argument to overturn draconian drug policies."[8]

Public responseEdit

The cover of the United Kingdom edition of Chasing the Scream features praise from Noam Chomsky, Sam Harris, Elton John, Naomi Klein, Stephen Fry and Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald.[20]

David Nutt, an English psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist specialising in drug research, wrote a positive review of Chasing the Scream for The Evening Standard. He praised Hari's research into the early events of anti-drug laws, some of which, Nutt noted, he himself had forgotten ever occurred. He called the personal stories of those affected the most "horrific", writing "The lack of evidence of the war having worked, alongside massive evidence of failure, are detailed with a frightening clarity." Nutt, the former chief scientific advisor on drugs to the British government, concluded, "Read it and demand our politicians take note!"[21]

Norm Stamper, author and former chief of the Seattle Police Department, wrote, “Johann Hari has written a drug policy reform book like no other. Many have studied, or conducted, the science surrounding the manifold ills of drug prohibition. But Hari puts it all into riveting story form, and humanises it… Part Gonzo journalism, part Louis CK standup, part Mark Twain storytelling, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is beautifully wrought: lively, humorous, and poignant. And, it’s a compelling case for why the drug war must end, yesterday.”[20]

Stephen Fry, whose 2014 memoir More Fool Me recalled his 15-year addiction to cocaine,[22] praised the book: “This book is, forgive the obvious phrase, screamingly addictive. The story it tells, jaw-droppingly horrific, hilarious and incredible, is one everyone should know: that it is all true boggles the mind, fascinates and infuriates in equal measure. Johann Hari, in brilliant prose, exposes one of the greatest and most harmful scandals of the past hundred years.”[20]

Seth Mnookin, professor of science writing at MIT, wrote in his New York Times review that Hari is "in over his head" when writing about the current science of addiction: "[H]is misunderstanding of some of the basic principles of scientific research — that anecdotes are not data; that a conclusion is not a fact — transforms what had been an affecting jeremiad into a partisan polemic." Mnookin also characterises Hari's historical account of the early prohibition of drugs as "forced". In contrast, Mnookin's assessment of Hari's discussions of current events is generally quite positive.[23]

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit


  1. ^ Hari, Johann (20 January 2012). "Update". Archived from the original on 18 January 2016. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  2. ^ Hari (2015), p. 291
  3. ^ a b Hari (2015), p. 1
  4. ^ Amanda L. Chan (18 July 2012). "Provigil: Narcolepsy Drug Being Taken By People Without The Sleep Disorder". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  5. ^ Hari (2015), p. 305
  6. ^ Hari (2015), p. 2
  7. ^ John C. McWilliams (1990). The Protectors: Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1930–1962). University of Delaware Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0874133523.
  8. ^ a b "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari". Kirkus Reviews. 20 January 2015. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  9. ^ a b Tuttle, Kate (18 January 2015). "CHASING THE SCREAM: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs". Boston Globe. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  10. ^ Hari (2015), p. 234
  11. ^ Hari (2015), p. 3
  12. ^ Johann Hari (2015). Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1-620-408902.
  13. ^ "The Interviews". Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  14. ^ a b c Harris, John (9 January 2015). "Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari review – taking on the war on drugs". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  15. ^ "Questions & Corrections". Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  16. ^ Duns, Jeremy. "Johann Hari is still lying to you". Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  17. ^ Romeo, Nick (27 January 2015). "'Chasing the Scream' poses provocative questions about America's 'war on drugs'". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  18. ^ Ed Vulliamy (18 January 2015). "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs review – a righteous assault". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  19. ^ Hugo Rifkind (10 January 2015). "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari". The Times. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  20. ^ a b c "Chasing the Scream". Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  21. ^ David Nutt (22 January 2015). "The war that shows no sign of ending". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  22. ^ Williams, Martin (26 September 2014). "Stephen Fry: I took cocaine at Buckingham Palace and House of Lords". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  23. ^ "'Chasing the Scream,' by Johann Hari". The New York Times. 15 February 2015. Retrieved 22 December 2015.